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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Pentagon Press Briefing

Aired March 24, 2003 - 15:31   ET

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

VICTORIA CLARKE, ASSISTANT SECRETARY OF DEFENSE (PUBLIC AFFAIRS): Good afternoon, everybody.
Coalition forces are continuing the fighting and are preforming with enormous skill, courage and determination, and are making good progress toward their objective: to end the regime of Saddam Hussein.

Our thoughts and prayers are (sic) those killed and missing, coalition forces. Their exceptional service and sacrifice are helping to make the world a safer place.

Let me talk for just a minute about the Iraqi treatment of the coalition prisoners of war. As we said yesterday, it is a blatant violation of the Geneva Convention to humiliate and abuse prisoners of war or to harm them in any way. As President Bush said yesterday, those who harm POWs will be found and punished as war criminals. The Iraqi regime must allow the International Red Cross to see the prisoners.

And contrast this abuse of the coalition prisoners to how well we are treating the Iraqi soldiers who are our prisoners of war. Right now more than 50 Iraqis, soldiers and civilians alike, are aboard U.S. naval vessels receiving medical care and treatment. We are treating all of the POWs in accordance with the Geneva Conventions, with dignity and respect, and they will soon have access to the Red Cross.

The Iraqi regime is engaged in other deadly deceptions. They are sending forces out carrying white surrender flags or dressing them as liberated civilians to draw coalition forces into ambushes. Both of these actions are among the most serious violations of the laws of war.

Known as perfidy or treachery, such acts are strictly prohibited because they make it extraordinarily difficult for coalition forces to accept surrendering forces or protect civilians. Some liken these acts to terrorism. Such acts involve the enemy willfully violating the laws of war, while simultaneously taking advantage of the coalition forces' compliance with that law.

The despicable behavior of the Iraqi regime has in no way stopped the progress of the coalition. Control of the country continues to slip away from the Iraqi regime and coalition forces are closing in on Baghdad.

We want to emphasize once again to the Iraqi people that the coalition campaign is not aimed at them. As General Franks made very clear this morning, our bombing is aimed at the regime of Saddam Hussein and leadership targets. We are bombing specific targets in and around Baghdad, such as the government control center, the offices of the Special Security Organization and the headquarters of the Special Republican Guards and the Iraqi intelligence service.

At the same time, we are taking extraordinary measures to protect the lives of innocent civilians. We continue to urge the Iraqi people to stay in their homes and we're poised at the borders to bring in large quantities of humanitarian aid to the Iraqi people, including millions of meals and medicine, when it is safe enough to do so.

Finally, another warning and caution for the news media.

It remains a very dangerous place out there, a very dangerous environment, particularly for the independent media that are roaming the battlefield. We have heard several reports of non- embedded media being injured, killed, missing and lost.

We have had some information that the Iraqi military might equip vehicles and Iraqi soldiers to look like news media.

I encourage, again, all the news organizations to exercise the utmost care and judgment with respect to how they are asking their reporters to cover this conflict.

General?

MAJOR GENERAL STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, U.S. ARMY: Thank you, Ms. Clarke.

I, too, would like to extend my condolences to the families of the servicemembers who lost their lives in action yesterday in Iraq, and in the helicopter crash in Afghanistan.

Additionally, I would like to tell the families of the soldiers taken prisoner that we will press on and do everything we can to bring them home safely.

Early this morning, a coalition aircraft was dropping ordnance on a bridge 100 miles from the Syrian border. After the bombs were released, a bus came into the pilot's view, but too late to recall the weapons.

The bombs struck the bridge and the bus. Unintended casualties like this are regrettable. We extend our sympathies to the families of those civilians who were accidentally killed.

Operation Iraqi Freedom continues. Coalition ground forces continue their attack toward Baghdad, and we are now more than 200 miles into Iraqi territory.

Forces are meeting sporadic resistance. Coalition forces have engaged Republican Guard Medina Division troops with attack helicopters and, as General Franks mentioned, one Apache helicopter went down during this engagement. The crew is listed as missing.

General Franks also mentioned the Saddam Fedayeen paramilitary troops. We've known that this group is being dispersed throughout regular army forces in an attempt to control allegiance to the Iraqi regime. We believe from prisoner of war debriefings that the Fedayeen may be preventing a number of regular soldiers from surrendering, giving the soldiers a choice of either fighting or being shot in the back if they attempt to surrender.

This act is in keeping with the despicable actions of the Iraqi regime mentioned by Ms. Clarke.

Yesterday, coalition air forces flew more than 1,000 sorties. Air strikes continue to focus on key regime leadership targets, to suppress ballistic missile threats, to degrade Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard units, to support special operations forces, and to strike targets of opportunity as they arise.

Coalition aircraft have dropped more than 2,000 precision-guided munitions since the beginning of the operation.

In enemy action, Iraq fired two missiles into Kuwait in the last 24 hours, one yesterday, possibly an Al-Samoud, and one earlier today, probably an Ababil-100. Both missiles were engaged by Patriots and brought down.

We have some weapons system video to show you on military targets we've hit in the last two days. The first clip shows a military vehicle in a berm southeast of Baghdad. It's being destroyed by F-15s dropping 500-pound bombs. The vehicle appears to be a launcher.

The second clip is of two F-14s dropping precision-guided weapons on hangars at the Al-Takatum (ph) Air Field, west of Baghdad. It's the largest and most important fighter base the Iraqi air force has.

And with that we'll take your questions.

QUESTION: General, have your ground forces begun engaging the Republican Guard yet in Baghdad? You say the Apaches are attacking.

QUESTION: And the questions being raised about the mad dash for Baghdad (UNINTELLIGIBLE), and questions being raised about what you're doing to backfill, are you going to start moving the 4th ID in soon to southern Kuwait to join this equipment and move into southern...

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I think I have a lot. First I'd stress that the tempo of the operation is controlled by General Franks, and the operations and contact will occur at the time and place of his choosing.

And that's key to his strategy, because he's got an array of forces, special operating forces, Air Forces, and maritime forces both of which provide exceptionally precision strike capability. And he's got a very lethal and very agile ground force which can move quickly. It can stop, start, move left and right. So he's got the ability to control the tempo of operations probably like never before.

So what that allows him to do is to create the conditions or preconditions as we describe on any place in the battlefield before he makes the next move.

What you're seeing on the ground movement now is, in fact, created conditions for the very rapid move that you've seen. Additional conditions are being created. At this point, to my knowledge, we have not gotten in direct firefight with Republican Guard forces, but they have been engaged with air forces and now with attack helicopters which belong to the Army (UNINTELLIGIBLE) at the ground forces. And so all of the pieces are falling in place to allow him to again to control the tempo of the move.

So the final part of your question on the 4th Infantry Division, of course, General Franks has directed that its equipment move down through the Red Sea and it would be brought in so he can use the force at the time and place of his choosing in the south.

QUESTION: General, a British correspondent in Baghdad is reporting that coalition force is about 63 (ph) miles from Baghdad, and the Medina Division is there. How good is the Medina Division? Is it the best in the 6th Republican Guard divisions there? And what's it armed with?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I'm not an expert on the Medina Division. I do know that it is one of the best of the Republican Guard divisions, one of the most powerful of the Republican Guard divisions. I am sure that it has been degraded significantly in the last 48 hours or so. I couldn't judge its current strength. But it is a lynch pin to the consistency of the Republican Guard defense.

QUESTION: General, there is some concern among officers particularly in the Army that you didn't bring enough armor to this fight -- you only had one heavy division in the 3rd ID. How would you respond to that?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I'd respond that General Franks has incredible flexibility right now. In fact he has a heavy division of 3rd ID which has moved with extraordinary speed more than 200 miles in a short amount of time. He's got the air assault capability of the 101st, which gives him incredible reach and the striking power a large number of Apache helicopters. He's got a Marine force, the 1st MEF, which has been remarkably successful to date.

MCCHRYSTAL: And he's got a coalition force from the Brits, so.

QUESTION: Do you think one heavy division is sufficient for the start of this (OFF-MIKE)

MCCHRYSTAL: I wouldn't put words in General Franks' mouth on what he needs.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

MCCHRYSTAL: I think he's doing pretty well with what he's got right now.

QUESTION: Are you going to bring back any of the 3rd ID armor to help protect the supply line? MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I'd be speculating on any plan General Franks has.

CLARKE: Well, and I'd say two things. And, Tom (ph), you started your statement saying "some Army officers." Who knows? I'm guessing they might be in this building or they might be very far away from where the action actually is.

I know most think that we are -- what? -- four days in into this conflict, and most people think extraordinary progress has been made, some say historic progress has not been made. Not to say there won't be problems, not to say the toughest battles might lie ahead, but I think most people are looking at this -- and most people with real information -- saying we have the right mix of forces. We also have a plan that allows it to adapt and to scale up and down as needed.

It's a lot easier to sit in Washington, D.C., and criticize but it's not really very useful.

QUESTION: What about all the bad news that U.S. and British forces got over the weekend? How does that fit into the statements that, you know, everything's going according to plan? Could you just...

CLARKE: One of the things I didn't want to find an opportunity to talk about, and I guess this is it, there are many strengths that, we think, over the long haul there will be many more strengths to this incredible media coverage of the operations. It is unprecedented and it is of a size and scope that we've never seen before, and that is very good for the obvious reasons.

It can be very challenging because, as the secretary has said, you have hundreds of journalists out there, many of them reporting just one very small slice of something. It's probably an accurate slice, but it's just one slice of what is a very large, very complex effort. And it may take time for people to sort through what's the significance of all of those things.

And what somebody with some perspective and some context looks at and says is a small firefight, that is absolutely something you would expect in a situation like this, from somebody there on the ground with the forces, it might look like something much bigger and much more intimidating.

Having said that, we're on the fourth day of these operations. We are on the time line, if not slightly ahead, that Genera Franks and his team have set. We have made considerable progress toward our objectives that they have spelled out. And we're securing the oil fields for the benefit of the Iraqi people. We have quite a bit of dominance from the air. We continue to make good progress heading toward Baghdad.

So it's hard, given all the information that is out there and all the reporting that is going on. But if you step back and you have some context, it looks about where it should be. Having said that, you know, people talk about what was expected and what's unexpected. One thing you do expect in any conflict is for bad things to happen. We said that repeatedly in the weeks and months leading up to this action. We said repeatedly one of the reasons you work so hard to avoid going to war is because bad things happen and people die, and that is awful. But if you have context on this plan, it is going according to most people who have the right kind of context, about as we expected.

General McChrystal, did you want to comment on that, because you looked...

MCCHRYSTAL: No, I think she got it incredibly well. I think if you put it in perspective -- and one of the things a commander always has to do is make sure he sees the big picture, because it's a great tendency, as a commander war games his plan, to expect little things to go wrong, and then when they go wrong there's a chance that you can focus on that. But if you step back and look at the bigger picture, like on this campaign, it's going superbly. And I think General Franks has kept that focus.

QUESTION: There have been several reports of additional U.S. casualties today. Can you bring us up to date on your latest understanding of additional ones today and the total number of U.S. casualties so far?

CLARKE: Actually not. Again, it's one of the advantages and disadvantages -- category of advantage and disadvantage of the embedding. Sometimes there is reporting coming forward from embedded journalists. Sometimes it's accurate, sometimes it's not. First reports are often wrong.

So we are sorting through that, and as the reporting comes forward we will provide it.

QUESTION: Well, Torie, you have to have some idea of what kind of casualties, particularly combat deaths have been suffered, even if it's not totally up to date (UNINTELLIGIBLE). And don't you have an obligation to share that with the American people?

CLARKE: We have processes and procedures which are well established, and most of you are well aware of them, many of which have to do with the next of kin. And we have to do things accurately, we have to do things thoroughly, we have to do them with great respect and sensitivity to the families involved. That process might not work as quickly as you all would like, but we take it very, very seriously.

So we are working through those processes and when the appropriate notifications have been done, identifications have been done, then we'll put forward the numbers.

I think you've seen...

QUESTION: But numbers are not the same as identifying people, Torie. CLARKE: I think you've seen a demonstration already today that we recognize the importance of putting out good news and bad news and everything in between.

So I just ask you to be patient and understand one of the reasons it takes some time to put forward those numbers on casualties, which I recognize is very important, is because of the processes and because of the procedures. A huge factor behind those is sensitivity for the families.

QUESTION: At the White House today Ari Fleischer talked about Russia sending GPS jammers, missiles and other -- night vision goggles. I wanted to get your take on that.

And do you have indication that that equipment has been in use? Specifically, are there signs that GPS-guided munitions have been jammed?

CLARKE: You know, I don't have anything to add to it. I know Ari was addressing it. I believe the State Department was addressing it. So we should just leave it over there.

QUESTION: Was there any military significance to these transfers, General? Could you address that?

MCCHRYSTAL: In fact, we have been aware for some time of the possibility of GPS jammers being fielded, and what we found is, through testing and through actual practice now, that they are not having a negative effect on the air campaign at this point.

QUESTION: I'd like to ask General McChrystal, can you share some more information about the Apache that went down? It looks reasonably intact in the field where it is. Was it a malfunction? Was it shot down? Was there any contact with the crew before they went down? Do we know if they got out of the helicopter and tried to escape or were the taken out of the helicopter? Can you give us some detail?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, I don't know any more detail. It does look like the crew was able to get out of the helicopter. In fact, the helmets were there. We hope that the aircrew is safe.

MCCHRYSTAL: I'm not sure what caused it to come down.

QUESTION: Did it look like a mechanical malfunction? I mean, clearly you're not there.

MCCHRYSTAL: So I'd be speculating. I just don't know.

QUESTION: For the last couple of days, you've talked about evidence of confusion in the chain of command, command-and-control arrangements. Yesterday, the Iraqi defense minister gave a briefing in which he seems entirely familiar with positions and movements of U.S. troop units, also Iraqi units; today, Tariq Aziz was out speaking. Do you have any -- is there any evidence that you can cite to support this idea that the Iraqi chain of command or command-and- control arrangement has broken down? CLARKE: I can repeat what we've seen before, and ask the general to pile on if he's got more.

We continue to see signs of some confusion and disarray. I saw some of that briefing that you were discussing and I had to smile when I saw it, because if anybody was out there just watching the huge volumes of what has appeared on television or appeared in the papers or been on radio or online, they could have given that same briefing he gave. So I don't put too much into that particular briefing.

MCCHRYSTAL: I would also add that Iraqi command and control has a heavy infamous on control. And that is in a negative sense, I use that term. It's coercion, in fact. And we are seeing evidence that orders that are being issues are not being executed in many case. They may be received, they may not be executed. And that, to me, indicates a weakening of their command-and-coercion system.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... orders that have been received and not been executed?

MCCHRYSTAL: Sir, we have indications of that, yes, sir.

QUESTION: Torie, you've mentioned about humanitarian. You said that they're poised at the borders for humanitarian assistance when it's safe enough to do so. But the Red Cross in Geneva today is saying that the water situation in Basra is close to what they call a humanitarian crisis. I wonder if there's anything the military can do to ease this situation in Basra now, and how important do you see the commitment to supply this humanitarian aid.

CLARKE: The commitment is very, very important. It's one we've made quite a long time ago, and we will follow through on.

And some things are already happening. As troops move forward, and if they encounter civilians in need, there are some MREs, there's water, there are things like that that they can provide. And I call the very short-term delivery.

There are ships that are being loaded. There are stockpiles, huge amounts of food and medicine and help for shelter, those sorts of things, that are on the borders, ready to go through the waters, for instance, when the demining has been done and those areas are cleared. And the coalition forces are a huge part of that.

So as soon as the area is secure enough to bring that kind of support in, it will be brought in.

I'm not aware of the Red Cross report.

QUESTION: Is there anything the military could do to ease the water situation now in Basra?

MCCHRYSTAL: I'm not aware of what they can do in Basra. I know there are some actions being taken for Umm Qasr as quickly as possible. So that which they're doing, I'm advised they are under way right now.

QUESTION: Sir, I want to go back to the Apache operation and focus on, not just the one plane, but the operation. Can you give us a sense of size and scope in terms of, roughly how many choppers were engaged against how many Medina Division vehicles? The reason I ask is, the New York Times, in a pool report, said so many of these choppers were shot up they couldn't execute their mission. General Franks, today, said it was executed well. Can you square the conflicting versions?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I come down on the side of General Franks...

(LAUGHTER)

Probably not surprising.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: What about the embedded media report that Torie's saying? There's a lot of accurate reports that were coming from the field.

MCCHRYSTAL: I'd say a couple of things on that, and it's really probably more generic.

But if you go back to the Apache itself and what it provides, in Afghanistan a very small number of Apaches made a huge difference in Operation Anaconda. They took a lot of fire, but they kept flying and, in fact, they were very effective. So the aircraft is a tough aircraft.

Another thing, although I won't talk the exact numbers on this operations, the Apache we have been working for a number of years now, in terms of our doctrine and capability, to be able to reach deep at enemy formations, and it goes back to setting the conditions I talked about earlier to degrade enemy ground forces so that when we finally meet the Republican Guard in a first direct firefight, in fact, it will be a very different equation than it would have been had we not done that.

So the combination of information operations, fixed-wing air, reaching deep with the Apaches, which can swarm on an opponent, and they do it very lethally in the dark, and then as we get closer using things like multiple-launch rocket systems. When we actually get to the direct firefight, even though we believe our forces are superior, we don't want it to be a fair fight.

QUESTION: Sir, was it successful, roughly speaking or not? I mean, you're dodging the question a little bit.

MCCHRYSTAL: By all reports it was very successful.

CLARKE: I've also heard different characterizations. I, too, read that report and I've heard different characterizations of the -- how the aircraft looked after it was over. QUESTION: General McChrystal, two questions. First, how will you change the rules of engagement since a number of the casualties sustained yesterday were as a result of what Ms. Clarke has described as Iraqi treachery? How will that affect the way coalition forces interact with populations that from a distance appear civilian but might not be?

Second question: We were led to believe before operations began that Iraqi TV would soon become a target. It is still broadcasting on the air, viewed by coalition forces as a propaganda tool. Why is it still on the air, sir?

MCCHRYSTAL: So I guess I take the second one first. Just like the tempo of operation, the targeting happens at the time and place of General Franks' choosing, and he is targeting those things with the precision and through the targeting process we talked about in the time line that he wants to, with the flexibility we also talked about. So those decisions are up to him.

In regards to the rules of engagement, I don't think they will change. I don't think you can change the basic humanity of American soldiers.

Clearly, they will be careful, as they always are, but I think it's important that we make it easy and safe for Iraqi soldiers to surrender, and they must feel that. They must feel that they can surrender without fear, and then be treated well, which is exactly what I'm sure we'll continue to do.

QUESTION: But, General, isn't there a risk of exposing Marines, as happened yesterday, to a possibly negative -- exceedingly negative result, as happened yesterday?

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I don't think the rules of engagement were the cause of that. They were treachery, perfidy on the part of the Iraqis. You can never completely account for that, you can just take great care as you conduct operations.

CLARKE: And I would just add onto that, Secretary Rumsfeld got a question similar to that on one of the shows yesterday, "Why haven't you taken out some of these things that look like such obvious targets?"

We try to make clear again and again what our objective is, which is to end the Iraqi regime with as few casualties as possible.

It is the Iraqi regime that has deliberately and brutally put military assets and equipment near and around and with civilians. They constantly do it, sometimes it's more obvious than others.

So we choose our targets very, very carefully to help us achieve our objective, which is to break the back of the regime with as few casualties as possible.

QUESTION: Well, when the Iraqi regime can go on television, as it did yesterday and today, and say, "Hey, we're fine, here's defense minister, here's Tariq Aziz, we're doing fine," it just seems counter- intuitive.

CLARKE: Boy, I'm tempted to tell the secretary's (UNINTELLIGIBLE) liar again. People should consider the source.

QUESTION: Could you put a little bit more definition on the Apache battle force? We're hearing that there's a second helicopter that maybe went down just over the border and that the pilots were extracted and that they're fine.

And also, could you explain why -- because I think we're all a bunch of armchair generals here -- the Apaches would be sent in against this unit that apparently had really strong anti-aircraft defenses that made this such a tough battle, why it wasn't hit with TLAMS or with JDAMs, which have a significantly longer standoff? The idea obviously being that they were, sort of, sent into an unfair fight.

MCCHRYSTAL: Sure. It may have been unfair; probably was not unfair in the way that you characterize it.

QUESTION: Do you have a measure of success? You said it was a success. Do you have a measure of success...

MCCHRYSTAL: Well, I couldn't give you the actual battle damage assessment of the enemy, but one of the values of the Apache is, a Tomahawk land attack missile or a JDAM, you often have to locate the target beforehand. To a spread-out military unit like the Medina Division, unlike a static headquarters or something easier to find, sometimes if they've done well camouflaging and putting them in berms, you have go out and you have to look.

The Apache, when operating in organizations, has the ability to go out with scout helicopters as well to find targets and engage them effectively. And they can also bring in other fires, they can control the fires of fixed-wing aircraft, they can control other fires.

So it gives...

QUESTION: Did that happen here?

MCCHRYSTAL: I don't know, ma'am.

QUESTION: Please. I'm sorry. Please go on on the second helicopter.

MCCHRYSTAL: No, it gives them the opportunity to go in and almost search around an area to conduct destruction.

The second aircraft -- I am not aware of a second AH-64 being downed.

QUESTION: Is there any interest, overture, approach, discussion, anything through intermediaries to the Iraqi regime about a POW exchange?

CLARKE: We've said some things very, very publicly, which I'll repeat. We expect them to get all the appropriate treatment and we expect the Red Cross to be able to visit with them.

We have still not yet completed the next of kin notification. So I think I'll just leave it at that for now.

QUESTION: (OFF-MIKE)

CLARKE: It obviously is a -- they and their treatment and what happens to them is obviously very, very important to us, and I'll just leave it there.

QUESTION: Can you address this civilian bus which was bombed by mistake, a little more detail on what the aircraft was, where this occurred, what the circumstances were?

(CROSSTALK)

MCCHRYSTAL: ... and that is that it was an A-10 aircraft, is my understanding. It was about 100 miles from the Syrian border. And that's really the extent of what I know now.

QUESTION: When did that happen?

MCCHRYSTAL: This morning, is what I'm told. Earlier today. I'm not sure what time.

QUESTION: A Maverick maybe?

MCCHRYSTAL: I am not aware of what munition.

(CROSSTALK)

QUESTION: ... why that bridge so close to Syria?

MCCHRYSTAL: Ma'am, we have taken great care in all the targets we hit to include infrastructure targets like that. I'm not sure of the decision on that particularly target.

QUESTION: General, what kind of bus was that?

CLARKE: We don't have that.

QUESTION: General, during the briefing today at CENTCOM it was said that the special operations team were on track. I'll ask you the same question I asked you a couple of days ago: Have you found any kind of traces of Scud missiles in western Iraq, either the missiles themselves or launchers or even just, sort of, tracks in the sand, anything that would indicate that there are any Scud missiles in that area?

MCCHRYSTAL: To my knowledge, there have been none detected at this point.

CLARKE: Last question.

QUESTION: General, you mentioned earlier that you had indications or evidence of commanders being given orders that they then do not carry out. To your knowledge, were any of the orders in question that were not obeyed orders to use chemical or biological weapons?

MCCHRYSTAL: No, sir.

QUESTION: Have you found any chemical or biological weapons to date?

MCCHRYSTAL: We have not.

CLARKE: Thank you, everybody.

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