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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

"Live From the Front Lines": Apache Helicopters Attacks Elite Republican Guard

Aired March 23, 2003 - 20:00   ET

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

(NEWS BREAK)
AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Baghdad endures a night of bombing, explosions less than an hour ago. And along the road to Baghdad, sometimes smiles and waves and other times gunfire and grenades. Coalition forces on the move. Five Americans taken POW.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: If there is somebody captured and it looks like there may be, I expect those people to be treated humanely.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Both sides, of course, take prisoners of war. How they are treated says a lot. American government reaction has been very angry at how the Iraqis have treated the five Americans.

And of course, tonight, there is also this, democracy in the streets. New polls are out tonight just coming out and we'll have that as well.

Good evening, again, everyone. If you are just joining us, we're glad to have you with us. I'm Aaron Brown at the CNN Center in Atlanta.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, Aaron. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Kuwait City. Let's take our viewers to Baghdad right now where it's been another night of anti-aircraft fire and explosion. The latest detonations came just a little less than an hour ago. Three huge explosions, we're told, by eyewitnesses on the ground. Some of the largest, we're told, since this air war by the United States and Britain began.

One of the targets reportedly, the Iraqi Air Force building, the compound in Baghdad, Central Baghdad. Other compounds in Southeastern Baghdad, targets that had been hit previously. The U.S. Air Force clearly anxious to hit those targets.

Once again, we're following a number of developments in the war in Iraq. For our viewers, if you've been away for the past few hours, let's begin with an update of how entire day has unfolded. Here's CNN's Miles O'Brien.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: 6:47 a.m. Eastern, Arabic language networks begin airing video from Baghdad that purportedly shows Iraqi authorities searching for a downed U.S. pilot. The Pentagon later denies any U.S. or British aircraft are missing over Baghdad. The search is eventually stopped.

7:08 a.m. Eastern, CNN's Barbara Starr says the Pentagon confirms a British Tornado aircraft was accidentally shot down Saturday by a U.S. Patriot missile as it returned from a mission over Iraq. Recovery efforts are underway, but hope of finding survivors is dwindling.

8:09 Eastern, CNN's Walt Rodgers embedded with the 3rd Squadron 7th Calvary reports soldiers are telling him Iraqis are using women and children as human shields around military installations. An hour later, he reports his unit has taken heavy fire that injured one soldier as the squadron continues moving toward Baghdad.

10:06 Eastern, CNN's Alessio Vinci with a Marine unit in Southern Iraq reports heavy fighting and some casualties near Nasiriyah.

11:03 a.m., Pentagon correspondent, Barbara Starr, reports the military has begun contacting families of up to 10 members of an Army maintenance unit, some of whom were captured, some of whom killed near Nasiriyah.

11:33 a.m., Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld tells CNN's Wolf Blitzer, following the airing of interview of American POWs on Iraqi TV, that Iraq is violating the Geneva Conventions with that video.

2:00 P.M., U.S. military leaders say American troops defeated Iraqi forces at Nasiriyah, but they say 10 soldiers were killed and 12 were reported missing after Iraqis ambushed a supply convoy.

2:30 P.M. Eastern Time, 10:30 in Baghdad, huge explosions are heard and buildings are set ablaze in the Iraqi capital apparently from a new wave of air strikes.

Miles O'Brien, CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: And for more details on what's happening in the war in Iraq, be sure to go to CNN.com. Lots of useful information there.

I want to go back to CNN's Karl Penhaul. He's one of our journalists embedded with U.S. troops.

Karl, when Aaron spoke to you just a little while ago, you had a headline there. You and your troops, the troops that you're covering, now only 60 miles outside of Baghdad. That's the deepest penetration we've heard of since the start of this war. It seems very close to Baghdad.

KARL PENHAUL, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed, Wolf. The strikes tonight were on positions on Republican Guard positions about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Very definitely the start of the major approaches to Baghdad, urban areas and like I say, heavily defended by the elite Republican Guard.

The Apache Attack Helicopters were going up against T-72 tanks, toad artillery pieces. These all belong to the 2nd Armored Brigade of the Medina Division of the Republican Guard. Positions were, if you look on a map, to the west of the city of Karbala and also the city of Al Hilal (ph). And these are positions that straggled the land between the river Euphrates and the river Tigris, so like I say, the approaches to the southern side of Baghdad.

The mission started somewhere after midnight. It lasted more than three hours. I've been flying on a Blackhawk helicopter. That was a command and control helicopter for one of the battalions of those attacks that was involved in that fight. From our vantage point, we were in a holding pattern about 20 kilometers, so some 15 miles out of the area where the strikes were taking place. It was, it must be said, a little bit difficult to get a full picture of what was going on there.

Initially, in the first stages of the combat, I did see three or four large balls of flame and plumes of smoke coming up from positions, which appear to have been struck by Apache attack helicopter weapons. Following that though, the pilots of the helicopter in which I was traveling, who obviously had a much better vantage point, was telling me that there was very heavy barrages of anti-aircraft fire and those were being put up in response to the arrival of the Apache attack helicopters on the scene.

Some of the pilots, some of the U.S. pilots have reported their aircraft has taken fire, but at present, I haven't been able to ascertain or get a full picture from commanders as to the true extent of what went on there and also, what positions, how successful they may have been in striking those Republican Guard positions -- Wolf.

BLITZER: Karl Penhaul, he's one of the embedded journalists, one of the CNN reporters with U.S. troops deep inside Iraq right now. Karl, thanks very much for that report. Stay safe over there. We'll get back to you from time-to-time, certainly, when you can.

There have been many major developments today in this war. One of the most important, of course, is the taking of those U.S. soldiers as prisoners of war by the Iraqis. While unsettling, it probably will not change the military strategy. Let's go to our senior pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre. He's covering all of these late breaking developments -- Jamie.

JAMIE MCINTYRE, CNN SENIOR PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, according to the account here at the Pentagon, there was a U.S. military supplied convoy that was made up of six vehicles. It was supposed to hook up with combat forces in Southern Iraq. Apparently, the commander of that convoy took a wrong turn and went into an area where there were no U.S. forces. They encountered some Iraqi troops. There was a firefight, an ambush, and some number of U.S. military personnel were killed, others were wounded, others were captured. Today, the incident was acknowledged by a spokesman at the U.S. Central Command in Tampa, Florida.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BRIG. GEN. VINCE BROOKS, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: There were 12 soldiers from the ambushed convoy that could not be accounted for. We believe them to be in the custody of the irregular forces that conducted the ambush. And their status is not known.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: Of course, the headquarters now is operating out of the forward base in Qatar, in Doha. There, the Lieutenant General John Abizaid, who is one of the deputies, gave a briefing on how the war was going. And despite what he described as the sharpest engagement of the war thus far at Nasiriyah, he said the war plan is on track and victory is certain.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, DEPUTY COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: We are satisfied with the strategy of our campaign plan. It's on track. It's being very successful in the broadest military sense. There will be times when actions will happen throughout the sector where loss of life will occur. But I would also emphasis that we do not consider the actions taking place in the sector as a defeat of any kind.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

MCINTYRE: Also tonight, a report that originated in "The Jerusalem Post," which is gaining some credence here at the Pentagon, although we have to tell you about it with a grain of caution. It does appear that the U.S. military has taken a suspected chemical weapons facility in Southern Iraq at a place called Al-Musayibb, about 150 kilometers south of Baghdad. We are told that this may be a chemical weapons facility.

General Abizaid was asked about it at that U.S. Central Command briefing in Qatar today. And he said simply that he could not confirm the report, but he did confirm that two Iraqi generals were in custody, had been taken prisoner, and they were providing them with information. It looks like the note of caution here is this does appear to be some of kind of a chemical production facility, but whether it's a chemical weapons facility may have to wait until they can get a closer examination of the location -- Wolf.

BLITZER: It's a sensitive issue. I know when I interviewed the defense secretary, Jamie, Donald Rumsfeld, earlier today, I asked him if U.S. and coalition forces had found any weapons of mass destruction capabilities inside Iraq. And he said, as of the interview, 11:30 a.m. Eastern this morning, when I interviewed him, he said the answer was no. So maybe this has happened since, maybe it's not necessarily weapons of mass destruction. It may simply be some sort of chemical facility, as you point out.

But right now, the focus is trying to find weapons of mass destruction presumably before they're used if, in fact, they're used. That's one of the highest priorities. There's no evidence, as far as I can tell, Jamie, and correct me if I'm wrong, that there's been any use of weapons of mass destruction, chemical or biological, in any of the warheads, the missiles, that have been launched so far.

MCINTYRE: No, there hasn't been. And General Abizaid, again, mentioned at his briefing two things. One is he also said they had no evidence that they'd found any weapons of mass destruction. But again, he may have been reserving judgment until he had more information about this particular facility.

He also mentioned again the concern that troops near Al-Kut (ph) may have -- south of Baghdad -- may have chemical weapons. That's based on the pre-war intelligence. The U.S. has said that some chemical weapons capability may have been provided to the Republican Guard there. So that's an area where they're going to be watching very carefully as they approach those forces -- Wolf.

BLITZER: And we do know, Jamie, from military officials, that some of the targets that have been bombed so far are suspected weapons sites. We don't know the success or failure of those bombing missions. Jamie McIntyre, our senior Pentagon correspondent, thanks very much.

This is a huge story, potentially, Aaron, and of course, we're going to check it out.

BROWN: Yes, and we would just underscore "potentially." This is what makes this sort of reporting -- this reporting on the fly tricky because you get these reports and you just want to -- particularly one on a subject as sensitive as this one, take your time and get it right. And that's what we're trying to do here.

The lead of the day clearly is that some Americans have been taken prisoner of war. It's the most disquieting scene we saw a little bit earlier. We saw it. We have not yet aired it. We're dealing with that question.

Soldiers are trained on this. CNN's Miles O'Brien is with General Wesley Clark, retired General Wesley Clark, the former NATO commander, to talk a little bit more about these issues of prisoners of war and the rest -- gentlemen.

O'BRIEN: Aaron, thanks very much. I'll tell you what, before we do that, before we talk about the lead of the day, let's talk about this possible lead, which is this situation in -- on (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Let's, first of all, show where this is. Take you to the map, zoom you in on this spot, which is about 95 miles to the southwest of Baghdad. We do know that the 3-7th Calvary has been through there because we heard from our Walt Rodgers embedded with that group, right at that stop. They saw some action there.

Now, we don't much about this place except to tell that apparently, there was some sort of facility found there. That is a broad thing because there are facilities that can make fertilizer, which also can be used to make chemical weapons. General Wesley Clark, just give us a -- calibrate us here on what this might possibly be.

RET. GEN. WELSEY CLARK, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Speculation would be that if it's a facility for production, maybe there's -- they know it because they found some empty shells there, some warheads for shells. I mean that's what I would speculate might be found there.

Whether there is anything to this or not, you know, as everybody says, we're going to have to develop this because this is huge. This is the -- this is the smoking gun evidence of chemical weapons, which we have all along believed that the Iraqis had if we behead this.

O'BRIEN: Perhaps the most tantalizing is that point that there were two generals captured and apparently talking.

Let's move on to Nasiriyah though, where we will get back to our discussion of the prisoners of war, which -- as Aaron pointed out correctly is the lead story of the day.

Give us a back-story on what was going on in Nasiriyah first, if you would, General Clark. First of all, the very important bridge there, which I'm going to point out to you right in the center of town there. Not a big place, but nevertheless very strategic. What was going on?

CLARK: It looks like that this was on the boundary between the 3rd Infantry Division and the Marines and somehow both forces were going to use Nasiriyah and the bridges. So what we had was the Marines following some elements of the 3rd Infantry Division, which had already passed through or around Nasiriyah. In fact, we even had reports yesterday, Miles, that that bridge had been -- or at least one of the bridges had been secured.

But this morning, when the Marines drove into town, apparently, it wasn't secure. Whether the enemy had come in over night or had been reorganized or something, suddenly there was stiff resistance. And that stiff resistance led to a daylong fight with a reconnaissance battalion of one of the Marine regiments.

BROWN: General, let me ask a basic leadership question if I can. What are captured Americans allowed to say or what is the expectation that military leaders have that they will say when they're in captivity? And just add to that a little bit -- what does the international law allow and not allow?

CLARK: Well, it's basically -- there's a code of conduct that every American solider memorizes. Now, this came out of our experience in the Korean War. And we, basically, have always said it's name, rank, serial number, date of birth. But as a result of the experience in the Vietnam POWs, there is a general understanding also that people will eventually give some information under duress. And so, the basic rule is that you resist giving information for as long as possible and you should attempt to abide by the strict limitations of the code of conduct. BROWN: And just, again, in -- in this -- just the second part of the question, the Geneva Convention that covers this in terms of how the capture...

(AUDIO GAP)

BROWN: ... is entitled to do or not do with these POWs.

CLARK: Well, they're not allowed to be tortured. They're not allowed to be subjected to mistreatment or abuse. They're supposed to be safeguarded. They're supposed to be given medical aid and food and shelter. They are, of course, going to be disarmed. Normally, the officers are segregated from the soldiers and non-commissioned officers.

BROWN: Thank you very much, General. We'll be talking more to you tonight.

Coming up in about a half an hour, we're going to talk to a reporter in El Paso, Texas, who has talked to the mother of one of the those young Americans, and Larry King -- coming up at 9:00 Eastern Time -- Larry King will have an interview with the mother of one of the them. And she is aware her son has been taken captive, obviously. And we'll -- that's coming up ahead. We'll give you more information as we go on that.

The president returned to the White House today fairly early on as this story was developing. After being briefed by his military advisers, the president did make some broad comments about those who are holding the five Americans tonight.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

BUSH: I am concerned about our troops. Obviously, any time one of our soldiers loses a life; I grieve with their parents and their loved ones. And if there is somebody captured, and it looks like there may be I expect those people to be treated humanly.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BROWN: Now, as the president -- he returned from Camp David today.

This news is especially difficult at Fort Bliss in Texas. That's the Army base home to the 507th Maintenance Company. That's what these young soldiers were. They were a maintenance group. They were there to fix broken down trucks and other things. They were not there to fight it out, if you will, in that sense of the term. CNN's Ed Lavandera joins us from the area now with more on the reaction there -- Ed.

ED LAVANDERA, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, well, when we spoke the last hour, there was some question as to just how many family members -- and if all of the family members involved in this situation had been notified. A spokesperson here at the base says that they are fairly certain -- and that's as best as they could couch it at this point -- that all of the family members have been notified so far. But they say they are working overtime to make sure that all of that has happened properly.

The soldiers that are involved, of course, were deployed from here just in February to go off. And they're actually, technically, under the command of the 3rd Infantry Division, a working maintenance unit here out of Fort Bliss, Texas. So they say -- and also another point to pass along is that these soldiers -- that even though they worked in a maintenance unit, that no one should be under the impression that they aren't properly outfitted when they're out in the battlefield like this. We're told that they do carry M-16, A-1 machine guns as well as all the other gear that a solider would work with on the front lines.

But there was a press briefing that was supposed to have happened here just about an hour and a half ago, and that was abruptly cancelled because officials say here that this situation is still very fluid and they're just not confident enough to go public with all the information they have at this point. So a lot of information still getting here, as many of the family members that are in and around Fort Bliss here desperately wait for any kind of information to come from the battlefield -- Aaron

BROWN: And our hearts go out to them. Thank you very much. Ed Lavandera joins us again at 8:45 tonight give or take. OK, we'll talk to a reporter from El Paso who has talked to the mother of one of the young Americans who was taken captive today. And then at 9:00 on "LARRY KING LIVE," Larry will be talking with that woman who has graciously agreed, on such a difficult day, to talk to us.

In a minute, we'll show you how some -- we'll show you some of what the Iraqis are seeing on their TV news. You'd never guess it was the same war or in some cases, even a war at all. Not unexpectedly, they see it from their own perspective. But for the British, there's no question that this is a war and it has been a very tough one for them. They've taken some losses. We'll take you to the middle of an artillery jewel when our special report, LIVE FROM THE FRONT LINES, continues on a Sunday night.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Millions of Americans, of course, are watching this most unusual war coverage, this marriage of technology in war, all day and all night. People in Iraq are getting quite a different version of what's happening from state-run TV as the coalition forces work their way toward Baghdad. CNN's Tim Lister (ph) now with the battle by state-run Iraqi TV to try and score psychological points in a time of war.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Besides its coverage of the U.S. soldiers killed or captured near Nasiriyah, Iraqi televisions also kept up a steady stream of reports about resistance to the U.S. led campaign. At an undisclosed location, Iraqi soldiers trample on the remains of a missile. It's English language markings clearly visible. Also, shown, damage to a Baghdad neighborhood in a bombing raid. The newsreader says 24 civilians were injured and accuses the United States of lying when it says it's using only so-called smart bombs. And there's more footage of hospital casualties, part of a consorted effort to support to claim that the U.S. campaign is ranging well beyond military targets.

Also, on the main evening news, what appears to be Saddam Hussein in relaxed mood meeting military commanders. THE announcer says the meeting took place Sunday. There's no way of verifying that, but it's clearly part of a campaign to show that the regime is still in complete control of the situation.

To reinforce the point, repeated airings of defiant words from Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan, his first appearance before the press since the war began.

At a later news conference, a taunting distinction drawn between American and British forces.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): We hope and we wish that we can fight Americans and not the British, but they are aggressive.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Many observers are surprised that Iraqi TV is still on the air, pumping out a stream of patriotic songs and scenes when not carrying news reports.

U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld says it's risky to attack the television station and its broadcast facilities.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: They have put their communications systems in downtown Baghdad and combing those civil action, civil activities with military activities. And they've done it in very close proximity to large numbers of innocent men, women and children.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: In the battle of the hearts and minds, the main evening news from Iraqi television also gives extensive coverage to anti-war demonstrations around the world, including in the United States. No opportunity missed to persuade the Iraqi people that there's universal, international condemnation of the American led campaign.

Tim Lister (ph), CNN.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: Propaganda, Wolf, is a fabulous thing to watch unfold. It's just the most interesting thing in the world.

BLITZER: And we're seeing extensive propaganda, of course.

Meanwhile, Arab media reported today that a coalition plane went down over Baghdad and that set off a frantic search by Iraqi troops along the Tigris River. The troops fired wildly into water where they say two coalition pilots had parachuted from their planes. Coalition officials firmly deny that any aircraft or pilots were lost over Baghdad.

Two British fliers did die today when their plane was mistakenly shot down by a U.S. missile. Both U.S. and British commanders talked about the accident during today's Central Command briefing.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID, U.S. CENTRAL COMMNAD: Earlier this morning, an American Patriot battery is thought to have downed a British Tornado in an accident that is both tragic and under investigation. The crew are, at this point, listed as missing.

In the various combat actions and accidents that have taken the lives of many of our comrades in this campaign, all of us mourn them.

MAJ. GEN. PETER WALL, UNITED KINGDOM: We don't know the full circumstances of the incident earlier today. But there is clear evidence to suggest that a U.S. Patriot missile battery shot down an RAF Tornado GR-4. A detailed investigation is underway, so we must not rush to judge. We need to establish exactly how this happened so we can take steps to minimize the risks in the future. But we have checked our current procedures and we are satisfied.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

BLITZER: Both commanders emphasize that despite the accident, the U.S. and British forces are working together smoothly.

British forces got trapped in fierce fighting today with pockets of Iraqi resistance in Southern Iraq. Reporter, Phillip Ray Smith, was with the troops when the ground battle broke out.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

PHILLIP RAY SMITH, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): Watching over burning oil fields, these British troops were the first to enter the company, but until yesterday hadn't even encountered Iraqi resistance. After sundown, everything changed.

It was all hands to the deck. Iraqi artillery were firing in the area and getting closer with every shot. Proof that hostile forces were not yet spent.

(on camera): Just over an hour ago, we came under attack by Iraqi artillery. After bombarding them with 105-milimeter rounds, they're not either in retreat or immobilized.

(voice-over): The (UNINTELLIGIBLE) was stacked up. This was counter attack on a large scale. Artillery against artillery, it was a simple battle to...

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