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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

War in Iraq: New Explosions Heard in Baghdad

Aired March 23, 2003 - 15:29   ET

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

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Welcome back to our continuing coverage of the war in Iraq. I'm Wolf Blitzer reporting live from Kuwait City. Judy Woodruff is in Washington. We have reporters covering all aspects of this story.
Our Kyra Phillips is embedded aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. That's one of five aircraft carriers in the Persian Gulf and Eastern Mediterranean from which U.S. warplanes are attacking targets in Iraq.

Kyra Phillips is joining us now live with -- with more. Kyra, what's happening aboard the Abraham Lincoln tonight?

KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Wolf, every morning Admiral Jon Kelley (ph) comes over the shipwide speaker and updates and encourages the sailors carrying out Operation Iraqi Freedom and today he talked about cockpit discipline. He talked about how bombs had been dropping with absolute certainty and accuracy.

Now, it's been two days since "shock and awe" occurred. The campaign, the massive air campaign over Baghdad, and we had a very unique opportunity before that happened. We were able to observe some of the briefings that were taking place with striker fighter pilots, the first strike fighter that were going to go in on this air campaign and observed some of the planning and the talk about how an operation like that will go down.

It's the first time that's ever happened between the navy and journalists. So we gathered up those elements and put them together so you'd have an exclusive inside look how it all went down that night.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Keep the G's on the jet keep your air speed.

PHILLIPS (voice-over): Here on the USS Abraham Lincoln, it's the night they've been training and preparing for for months.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Our mission objectives, we heard that, hit the target. Kill MIGs.

PHILLIPS: VF 31, the F-14 Tomcat squadron is about to take part in a massive aerial bombardment against Iraqi President Saddam Hussein and his regime.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A lot of lights, a lot of explosion. Don't get mesmerized by that. Focus on what you need to do.

PHILLIPS: Lieutenant Steve Ures doesn't know it now, but he will take on a very crucial role.

(on camera): The tomcatters (UNINTELLIGIBLE) coalition aircraft as they are expected to release more than 1600 bombs and missiles in the next couple of days, converging on Iraq in the campaign that's being called "shock and awe."

(voice-over): Armed with satellite and laser-guided bombs and numerous types of missiles, these F-14 and F-18 strike fighters are about to make history.

Back in the tomcatters ready room, fellow pilots wait and watch the news. They know what's about to happen.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: A little "shock and awe."

PHILLIPS: Military sites, Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace and offices of the Foreign Ministry, all hit.

The initial strike takes only seven minutes. Life changes quickly, to only for Iraq, but Lieutenant Steve Ures. A chain of events puts him in the lead position of his F-14 division to and from Iraq. The end of the night debrief is emotional.

LT. STEVE URES, U.S. NAVY: Looked like something right out of Star Wars. It was very intense. A lot of adrenaline and it's pretty much when you're seeing all this and there's so many moving parts to obviously what all happened tonight, you try and absorb it all, and it kind of feels like you're almost coming out of your skin.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: All the feelings and emotions started coming back after we were already headed home out of any threat areas, it's just kind of wow, you feel the weight of what you just did and everything just hits you.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Whatever we're doing out there makes it easier for the ground troops that actually have -- you know, we're lucky because we get to do our 20, 30 minutes.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: We're now hearing these sirens going off in Baghdad once again, sirens usually followed by tracer fire and then perhaps more bombardment. You're looking at these live pictures coming in from Baghdad right now.

This has been already, already a pounding night for residents of Baghdad. Earlier, within the past couple hours, three huge explosions rocked the southeastern portion of the Iraqi capital. Three huge explosions, which were not only thunderously loud, but also created a huge plume of smoke in that area.

This is part of the U.S. air campaign, the so-called "shock and awe" campaign going after various targets in and around the Iraqi capital. Similar air action going on elsewhere throughout Iraq.

We only see a little bit of what's going on in Baghdad. That happens to be where we have these fixed cameras that are recording on a live picture as well as in videotape what's going on.

Kyra Phillips has been listening to this. She's still aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln. it's an aircraft carrier in the Persian Gulf.

Presumably, Kyra maybe some of the aviators from the Abraham Lincoln are involved in these kinds of air strikes against targets in Iraq.

PHILLIPS: Well, Wolf, you are watching the piece that was just airing, and we have had a unique glimpse inside the briefings and some of the been planning that's taking place. We usually know beforehand when these air strikes are going to take place. Of course we can't talk about it until it's happening. Well, now it's happening and I can tell you these flight operations happen all through the day, all through the night.

"Shock and awe" is far from over. It began two days ago. It will continue every day like this. Some days it will hit a little heavier than others. I can tell you they continue to take out a number of targets. Strike fighters telling me just within the past 12 hours, a number of leadership compounds, runways they continue to drop bombs on those air bases there, air defense systems, command and control sites, tanks, even facilities as specific as the Republican Guard special operations warehouses, Wolf.

So this is going to be ongoing. It's not going to loosen up at all. It's going to remain consistent. The planes continue to launch on a regular basis, the missions will be planned, and we will continue to see pictures from Baghdad like we're looking at right now.

BLITZER: Kyra, are these -- these F-14s, F-18s aboard the Abraham Lincoln, are they flying around the clock or do they have some time, these aviators, to sort of rest in between missions?

PHILLIPS: Well, you know, as you mentioned, there are five carriers out here in the OAR, in area of operations and they do work in cycles. They all integrate; they do these air strikes together.

I mean, the beginning of "shock and awe," it was just a massive integration of coalition air strike campaign. You had strike fighters from all the different carriers, you had a number of other countries participating with their aircraft also. More than 100 aircraft, matter of fact, involved in that campaign.

Same thing happening now, Wolf. At all hours, a number of F-14s, a number of F-18s, rather, from the various carriers will come together and integrate and conduct these missions. So yes, it's happening around the clock.

You asked about sleep. That's a great question. A number of these strike fighter pilots, you'll find them taking naps in between their shifts. They're very happy if they get 30 minutes here, 30 minutes there. They never get a full night's sleep, Wolf. It's definitely a reality check when we think about our lifestyles back at home. These guys have been out here on this ship, this carrier for eight months now. Just imagine continuing that kind of lifestyle, all the training and preparation for this war, now it's under way, and it hasn't changed.

Hold on a minute with me, I've got a recovery coming in. That was a Prowler, a Prowler coming back from Iraq. The radar jammer aircraft. As you know, those aircrafts take off before the strike fighters do and help jam the radar so the strike fighters when they get out airborne, the Iraqi regime will not be able to pick up their frequencies and where they are exactly.

So there you go, that answers your question. All through the night, aircraft taking off and launching and recovering on these missions.

BLITZER: Kyra Phillips aboard the Abraham Lincoln in the Persian Gulf. Normally these -- these air craft carriers go for six-month tours of duty, now eight months and counting. I don't know how these guys get any slept having slept on aircraft carriers over the years. It's a constant, constant noise. I guess they get used to those planes landing and that tail hook stopping those jets as they try to land. There's another one right there.

Kyra Phillips, thanks very much. Let's go back to Judy in Washington.

WOODRUFF: Wolf, we're getting as we watch the pictures of Baghdad, we are getting from Kyra a pretty specific picture of what the navy officials she is talking to say they are hitting. We heard her say, among other things, air defense systems, tank sites. We heard her mention Republican Guard special operations warehouses. So we are getting a picture of, at least from the air war perspective, of success in hitting targets.

I wanted to turn to my colleague Miles O'Brien in Atlanta who's with General Don Shepperd. Miles, the air war going well from what they say even at the same time that we are hearing about resistance on the ground.

MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, yes, we have a lot of things to keep track of, don't we, Judy?

Let's do that with the help of Major General Don Shepperd retired of the United States Airforce. And I tell you what? Let's start right off, if we could, since we just saw pictures from Baghdad of some anti-aircraft fire as it is lofted above the city, and it's worth pointing out what this is.

I know we've said this a quite a few times, but Don Shepperd, just explain what people are seeing when they see these tracer rounds, which we should see here shortly.

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Yes, basically what you're seeing is tracer, about one in seven from the low level anti-aircraft fire, sometimes one in four from the higher. Then you see air bursts at the end, bright flashes where the shell goes off, so it doesn't flow back on.

So basically, you can say for every shell that you see going out, there are seven others in the air. Now one thing I will observe is this anti-aircraft fire is much lighter than we've seen in the last two or three days. They could be conserving ammunition, it could be that they've been degraded. It's hard to say, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right. But the point is this doesn't look like it's directed fire, does it?

SHEPPERD: No, but it is commanded. This is sector fire where they fill up a sector of the sky hoping that an airplane pulls through it and hoping they spear the airplane.

O'BRIEN: All right. Let's look at the map for a moment and orient you as to what we're talking about. I want to talk about the surrender -- the situation of the surrenders or false surrenders, as it, were in and around Nasiriyah, where we've heard of a tremendous amount of action. Some casualties, and some POW issue which we'll get into later.

One of the things that has come up in that Central -- CentCom briefing was this issue of troops being received apparently warmly by Iraqi civilians, apparent Iraqi civilians and then having the tables turned suddenly. Why don't we -- we'll show some of these -- this reaction. What is really happening? What are the troops going to do?

SHEPPERD: All right. When you have POW -- when you people trying to surrender, you must be very, very careful and very suspicious. One thing is, they can be real people, civilians trying to surrender. The other is they can be trying to pass through your lines, to pass information on such as your position. You have to assume that everybody that comes toward you is hostile and armed.

We talked about the five S's yesterday. I won't bore you with them. But search, seize, et cetera. You must make sure that POWs are handled very, very carefully and interred and then incarcerated and then you want to interrogate them for information about other things that are in your front there, Miles.

O'BRIEN: So the word to wise is Don't get caught up in the moment there and the assumption that the Iraqis are happy to see you.

SHEPPERD: Exactly. Just because people wave flags and smile doesn't mean that they won't shoot you in the back the next day. We had this in -- we've had every war, particularly in the Vietnam War where you could have assumed that no one was friendly.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Lets get down to the al-Faw Peninsula, this battle that we have witnessed at Umm Qasr. First of all, as we look at some of the video, there there's a couple of points to bring out. First of all, what we're going to see is rather dramatic night vision images. These are British marines, correct?

SHEPPERD: Indeed.

O'BRIEN: Going after a site there after Umm Qasr was supposed to be buttoned up.

SHEPPERD: You can never relax in a military operation. Just because you think it's secure doesn't mean that it can't pop up the next day -- that's a particularly in al Faw Peninsula, Umm Qasr is....

O'BRIEN: Notice, no helmet here, by the way. No helmet. That was something you don't -- you're not advised to do.

(CROSSTALK)

SHEPPERD: Not smart. Not smart. Especially in a fire fight.

At any rate, you can assume that you've got these things secured but you can have things pop up -- we can have them pop up a month, two months from now. So you must always be on the alert in a military operation anytime you're occupying an area. You simply can never relax.

This -- we thought the port was secure and now wham, somebody starts shooting.

O'BRIEN: And as this thing unfolds, they use a flash or stun device to try to disorient the people inside there.

SHEPPERD: That's a stun grenade. It basically goes off, provides a flash, it stuns the people in the area, then you rush in on top of them while they're stunned. It's the same thing you use in hostage rescue.

O'BRIEN: All right.

What does that tell you, though, about the strategy of kind of barreling through as we see that dramatic shot of somebody, obviously a flame coming out of there, barreling through and not seizing turf in the classic sense?

SHEPPERD: Yes, in this case we are bypassing some of the cities. And the idea behind it is you keep moving, you secure your rear lines and your supply lines. But you will likely go in afterwards and clean up some of these areas.

For instance, we're bypassing Basra -- 1.2 million people in that city.

O'BRIEN: Second largest city in Iraq.

SHEPPERD: If you stop there, you may be stopping there for a long time. So if there is nothing inhibiting your forward movement, you may go on and then come back and clean that up later with reinforcements coming into the theater.

O'BRIEN: However, though, that can cause problems in the rear of your column.

First of all, Nassiriyah -- we know about 10 casualties, excuse me, maybe a couple of dozen casualties, ten of them fatal and we're trying to get some more information for you on that. But that turned out to be a steep battle there, as it turns out.

SHEPPERD: It did. Nassiriyah is about 5,000 people around there, an airfield west of there is very important to us. But again, the further we get from Kuwait, the further we are from our supply lines on the U.S. side. And therefore, you must be careful to secure those supply lines. It's a big country, Miles.

O'BRIEN: All right.

Finally, the POW issue, also at Nassiriyah. And this is where I bring up this point about the rear echelon being -- this is a maintenance crew. They had come through and presumably had attained some level of security and yet here they were captured.

What does that tell you, first of all, about the security of the rear echelon? Should we be concerned on what appears to be a rather bad day in general for the U.S. or is this just part of what happens?

SHEPPERD: Always concerned about your security everywhere in a war region. We also need to be concerned about our security here in the United States. Bad things can happen here and likely will, but you must maintain security. Things break down, you have to go fix them and you got to protect the people that do. Something went terribly bad here.

O'BRIEN: All right. And briefly, Geneva Convention rules are pretty straightforward on how to handle prisoners in this case. The rule that we are going to call your attention to -- and by the way the Geneva Convention goes there's several conventions, which go back to the mid 1800s.

The one of 1949 codified says, "Prisoners of war must at all times be protected, particularly against acts of violence or intimidation and against insults and public curiosity."

I guess there are all kinds of contradiction in terms of rules of war. But in the case of Saddam Hussein, a person who the U.S. alleges and has been proven over time, has thumbed his nose at the Geneva convention in so many ways with weapons of mass destruction, can we expect this regime to pay any attention to those conventions?

SHEPPERD: We must demand that they pay attention to the conventions. They clearly are an outlaw regime, it is also clear that this is a different war. The United States is going to Baghdad and when we get to Baghdad, those responsible for this type of thing will be held responsible.

That's different than the last war where we stopped and didn't go on. They need to treat these prisoners in accordance with the Geneva convention. Their track record in the past has been terrible. That needs to change, Miles.

O'BRIEN: Major General Don Shepperd, thanks for the insights as always. We appreciate you giving us once again, the big picture, trying to sort it out for us.

And let's send it to Judy.

WOODRUFF: And Miles, we should say the Iraqis have officially said that they're going to abide by the Geneva Convention. Of course, we have no way of knowing if that will actually take place.

We have, as you know, a number of CNN correspondents who are embedded with the U.S. and coalition forces throughout the theater in the Iraq area.

We want to go right now to CNN's Ryan Chilcote who is with the 101st Airborne Third Brigade. And Ryan, are you somewhere in south central Iraq? Correct me if I'm wrong.

RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: That is correct. We arrived here today at the 101st Airborne Third brigade arrived after a -- get this -- 72-hour convoy ride from Camp New Jersey where they had been previously. A very, very long trip.

I apologize for my appearance. It's -- we just pulled in, and it was really quite a dusty ride.

On a more serious note, big milestone here. The 101st 3rd Brigade has established what they call a FARP here in southern Iraq. A FARP is a forward area rearming and refueling point. That is military vernacular for basically a giant, giant gas station, and weapons depot for helicopters. So basically, now, the 101st can use their Blackhawk helicopters like the one you see behind me. They can fly those in from wherever, refuel them here and move them farther towards the front from here. It extends their ability to move troops behind Iraqi lines.

It also extends their ability to project their Apache attack helicopters farther, deeper behind enemy lines, deeper behind Iraqi lines. In other words, the Apache attack helicopter can now, instead of having to ferry back all the way back to the rear each time to get weapons and fuel, it can just come back here and it can spend more time destroying targets on the front. That is a very important thing in the development of this war.

A little bit about the convoy ride. Very long, as I said. During that ride, the 3rd Brigade went through three towns, very interesting reactions in the first town, they were cheered. You know, both elderly and young turn out. The soldiers tossed MREs, Meals Ready to Eat, to the kids. The kids were collecting them. It was quite a positive reception.

The second town, a much cooler reception. As one soldier put it" It was downright eerie." The soldiers went through this town, smack through the middle of it in the middle of night. They were on low ground. The commander said it had all of the ingredients for an ambush on the third brigade and thank God that didn't happen. There, the locals, the Iraqis in that town not applauding but simply watching the soldiers as they passed through. One of the commanders mentioned to me how eerie it was seeing a giant mural of Saddam Hussein on one of the buildings. So that was quite a different reception.

And then a third town again, a warm reception like they got in the first town. So interesting to see the interaction as they go through these towns.

Lastly, on a much, much more serious note, the soldiers of the 101st Airborne's 3rd Brigade have been informed about what happened back at Camp Pennsylvania. You'll recall, of course, the incident there where 12 soldiers of the 101st Airborne were injured and one was killed in an attack, apparently, according to initial reports, by one of their own soldiers.

The reaction here is one of grief. Obviously, a lot of these soldiers here at the 3rd Brigade knew the soldiers back at Camp Pennsylvania. And also a reaction of shock, as one commander put it, it's difficult to imagine that this could come from one of our soldiers. We came here to face an enemy, not our own soldiers -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: Ryan, one can only imagine how -- how much these soldiers must be grieving about their colleagues back, as you said, at Camp Pennsylvania.

I want to come back to what you were saying about the reception they've gotten from the Iraqi people in those three villages and elsewhere. In other words, they've met with no active resistance anywhere on this 72-hour march north that you've described?

CHILCOTE: Well, almost.

There was one cryptic sort of thing as they came to the second town, where they got the sort of colder reception, if you will. The bypass road that they were planning on taking had been blocked off with rocks. And the commander of the 3rd Brigade told me he assumes the local Iraqis put it there for some reason, perhaps because they didn't want them going that way. They didn't -- and he took that as a sign that they really didn't want to see them.

Now, it's very difficult to know what that meant. But outside of that, an absolutely very, very positive reaction to the troops. I mean I was very surprised to see, as the convoy went through these towns, the amount of people that turned out, the amount of people that were smiling, giving the thumbs up, shouting to the troops. A really a very, very positive reaction.

The only thing was, in one town, they said, look, You came in '91. We just want to make sure, are you here to stay?

And the ground commander said, Yes, we are, and when he assured them of that, then they said, Well great, we're happy to have you here. So, I think that they're a little bit cautious, but very optimistic about the presence of U.S. troops.

Obviously, a lot of these people in these towns are Shiia and they don't really have particularly warm feelings for President Saddam Hussein anyway, so it should be no surprise that they would be happy to see U.S. troops.

WOODRUFF: To put it -- to put it mildly, not surprised at all.

Ryan, another question. How secure do they say they feel at this location where are you in south central Iraq having set up this, as you put it, gigantic gas station to provide fuel for these helicopters and other aircraft -- is it secure? And as they move north, to what extent are they watching their backs, watching their flanks?

CHILCOTE: Well, it's an issue.

I think they feel very secure. There is a very serious security presence here. There are other units in the area, very large units providing -- including the 3rd Infantry Division in this area that are policing the area.

I think they feel very secure, but they are obviously, concerned about how reaction in this area could change, perhaps, from a warm one to not such a warm reaction. At this point, though, there is very little in terms of an organized Iraqi resistance in this part of Iraq. It is simply not there, and it is difficult to just come out of the blue with some kind of resistance here.

This is a very desolate area. You couldn't just appear on the horizon and start, you know, for example, firing RPG rounds on to a base. It's just simply not possible. You would be spotted.

So they do feel secure, but obviously, you can never feel secure enough, particularly when you have helicopters flying out there -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: All right. Ryan Chilcote with the 101st Airborne 30 -- 3rd Brigade, having spent the last 72 hours moving north through southern Iraq. They've now found an emplacement they have put together what he called a FARP. That's the acronym Area -- Forward Area Rearming and Refueling Point, which he said will be, in other words, a giant gas station to supply and fuel the helicopters moving forward.

But again, after a very dusty, long and must be exhausting journey north, there they are.

So Wolf, we are seeing progress even as we hear about resistance across other parts of the theater.

BLITZER: Sort of a mixed bag today.

Some significant progress as the president and the defense secretary point out, but also some setbacks, some serious setbacks that could be a trend in the coming days. Let's turn our focus now to the latest on the situation in northern Iraq. CNN's Brent Sadler reports now from the Kurdish controlled town of Kalak.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): A section of Iraq's northern front, less than a mile from our camera. Saddam Hussein's troops are spread along the ridgelines. Uncertain strength lies to their rear.

But take a close look at what these Iraqi soldiers are busy doing, disregarding the threat of air strikes, they dig trenches, plant landmines, and set explosions on the road to Mosul, an apparent effort to keep their foes at bay.

It coincides with the reported changeover in some units manning these positions and follows Kurdish claims that some troops were on the verge of succumbing to defeat.

Instead it seems, new orders are being given and obeyed. No sign of mutiny here.

Soldiers maintain their weapons, adjust a mortar tube and fire sporadic bursts from heavy caliber machine guns towards Kurdish lines.

Kurds take cover in the virtual ghost town of Kalak. Kalak nestles beneath the Iraqi fortifications, a Kurdish frontline community that has lived in the shadow of Saddam Hussein's forces for 12 years.

Most people shut their shops here and fled their homes on the eve of war. But a few families remain, relatives of Kurdish fighters, and these two families with 18 children between them. Their fathers say there seems no point in running away.

I'll take a chance and stay here, says Kamal Smi (ph). If it's my fate to die, I'll die in my own home.

And for the few who remain here, a hope that the apparent resolve of these Iraqi soldiers will soon break.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BLITZER: That was Brent Sadler, our reporter in the northern part of Iraq.

We have another reporter up there, as well. CNN's Ben Wedeman is also covering the story. He's joining us live with an update on the situation in the northern part of Iraq -- Ben.

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, Wolf, as we reported earlier, the bombing of Mosul continues. That in the early evening.

Earlier in the day, for the first time, apparently, coalition bombers hitting frontline Iraqi army positions. That north of Mosul.

Meanwhile, we're hearing reports that the first U.S. troops are beginning to arrive by air, this time in the western -- or rather the eastern Kurdish City of Sulamania (ph). That's near the Iraqi -- the Iranian -- the Iranian border.

Here in the Kalak area, however, there doesn't seem to be any deployment of U.S. forces. We've been told by Kurdish officials that they do expect the U.S. forces to concentrate in this area here, which is on the main road running west to the city of Mosul -- Wolf.

BLITZER: All right, Ben. We'll be checking back with you later. Ben Wedeman in Northern Iraq with the latest developments there -- Judy.

WOODRUFF: The latest headlines in the war with Iraq just moments away.

And in the upcoming hour, we will go live to the frontlines with reports from our correspondents embedded with U.S. and British forces.

Plus, analysis of the battle for Iraq from the air to the ground to the sea. We'll speak with Retired Major General Don Shepperd.

And later, voices from the homefront. Supporters of the troops and those opposed to this war all take to the streets. We'll check back with our reporters on the scene.

I'll be back in a moment, but now the latest developments.

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