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British Officials: Basra is Legitimate Military Target

Aired March 25, 2003 - 04:08   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: All morning long we have been reporting the ever-changing situation in and around Basra.
Christiane Amanpour joins us now on the phone with the latest.

Christiane -- what can you tell us?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, of course because the resistance from the Iraqis is more significant than the British and indeed the U.S. forces had imagined, the shift in tactics is designed to respond to that.

In other words, Basra is now being declared by the British a military target. It is Iraq's second most important city. There's a population of about one-and-a-half million people there.

And originally, the U.K., which is responsible for the southern Iraqi area, said that they did not want to go into or be drawn into combat in any urban areas. They want to bring humanitarian aid there, and they want to be welcomed in.

However, because the Iraqi army elements, the 51st Division which was defending around Basra, has now pulled back with tanks, infantry and artillery into the city, this has caused a shift of tactics by the British to try to engage them and basically destroy them.

We are told that this is a high-risk and difficult military operation, and it also signifies that the Iraqis have, in this case, turned Basra to their advantage. They are now trying to bring in the fight on their terms, because they know that the British and the Americans have said for a long time that they do not want to go into urban fighting, they do not want to cause civilian casualties.

So this is what the U.K. military spokesman told us about future military operations and, in fact, ongoing military operations in Basra.

COOPER: And, Christiane, we should point out to you that RAF spokesman John Fynes spoke to us a little while ago, and said that the RAF stands ready to use air support, call in precision-guided munitions, if it comes to that. If they are asked to do that, they are ready.

But obviously that is a difficult task in a civilian population, as you're pointing out. So much emphasis is being put on avoiding civilian casualties. AMANPOUR: That's exactly right. Let's roll that piece of sound from Colonel Vernon, and he explained what areas they're trying to target.


COL. CHRIS VERNON, BRITISH MILITARY SPOKESMAN: We're on the outskirts of Basra. We're seizing fleeting opportunities, as he brings his tanks out to the rear outskirts engaging with direct-fire tanks, and indeed artillery, but only onto the outskirts where we're pretty clear we're not going to inflict collateral damage on civilians.


AMANPOUR: So you see, Anderson, this is what they're trying to do. It remains to be seen whether they'll be able to limit their operations to their declared intentions.

Overnight, there was an engagement. The British launched an operation, a military offensive, into a town just south of Basra. This was designed to get some Baath Party officials. We are told that they did capture one. The fate of the other one is unknown.

And the strategy there is to get -- try to separate the political leadership from the people, and to try to win the people away from the political leadership.

One British soldier was killed in that operation.

And again, showing Iraqi resistance the Iraqis launched a counter-offensive on the southern Al Faw peninsula overnight. The British, who are in command of that Al Faw peninsula, called in what they call "close air support." That's when on-the-ground military call in air power, and they hit specific targets. And we're told that they hit and destroyed 20 Iraqi armored vehicles, including T-55 tanks -- Anderson.

COOPER: Christiane, you talk about the desire to separate the Baath Party officials from the civilian population. Basra, of course, a largely Shiite population. Are coalition forces still operating under the belief that they will be welcomed by the civilians within Basra? That there is -- it is possible to drive a wedge between the civilian population and these Fedayeen, the Baath Party officials?

AMANPOUR: Well, that is their hope, and that's been their hope all along. They hope that the people, perhaps it was a premature hope, would sort of spontaneously rise up and welcome the U.K. and U.S. forces.

Now, they believe that one of the reasons that hasn't happened is because of these political militias who are generally used to suppress internal dissent. And these, as you've mentioned, the Baath Party militias and the Saddam Fedayeen and perhaps other, these are people who are armed with AK-47s, Kalashnikov machine guns and also with RPGs, rocket-propelled grenades. So they have a certain amount of fire power, and they are potentially controlling the internal population, as well as harassing British and U.S. forces.

So this is something that they're trying to do, and then you've got the added resistance from the Iraqis of the regular army pulling back into the town with much heavier weapons, including tanks and large elements of infantry.

COOPER: Christiane, it will also be interesting to see if and when the city of Basra is taken, is secured, and civilians are able to come out and talk to reporters. It will be interesting to see what impact the fact that there was an uprising there in 1991 after the first Gulf War that was crushed, that did not receive international assistance. It will be interesting to see if that played any role in civilians at this point not sort of coming forward.

AMANPOUR: Well, you're exactly right, and there is a certain amount of bitterness, or at least long memories, about what happened in 1991 when it was perceived that the president of the United States had urged uprisings. And then it was perceived that they were left to their own devices, and as you correctly remember, they were very brutally crushed and repressed.

So there is a certain element, we understand, of people waiting to see exactly who has the advantage and who has the upper hand. And perhaps being unwilling to take on internal militias and the like unless they know that, you know, they'll win the day, and that apparently, certainly as far as we've seen, is not clear yet.

COOPER: Waiting to see where the sand storm blows, I guess.

Christiane, just my final question, I know you've got to cover this thing and you've got to go, but I just want to ask one final question. We have just heard from Iraq's trade minister, Mohammed Saleh, who said basically that Iraq does not need humanitarian help, that they have all the money and medicine and food they need if only coalition forces will allow it to get to the people. They sort of blamed coalition forces and said sort of this whole desire, this whole message from coalition forces of trying to get humanitarian assistance into Basra, Iraq's trade minister basically saying it's a lie more or less.

Talk a little bit about why Basra has become a target. What is the importance to Basra? Is it a military target? Or is it to get this humanitarian assistance according to coalition forces?

AMANPOUR: OK, well, basically Iraq, the civilians survive on what's called the oil-for-food program, which has been going on for many years now in which Iraqi oil money is put into escrow and humanitarian supplies -- food, medicine and the like -- are bought for the people. That has kept the people afloat for the last several years. It stops now, certainly of course, since the military operation. So that's one issue.

The other issue is that the British and the Americans want to be seen bringing humanitarian aid in, both because it's necessary and in a way to win hearts and minds. And so that was their early objective down south was to get the port of Umm Qasr, to start bringing in humanitarian aid, to show the population that these were friendly forces, not occupiers and not repressors, if you like, that they wanted to help the people.

So that was a key early objective, and to be frank, they thought they may have been able to accomplish this quicker than they have. So far they have not accomplished it. They have not yet brought in humanitarian aid.

So it's a two-pronged effect here. In Basra, they say to us that they are -- they believe they have adequate food supplies for the next several days, if not for several weeks. But the humanitarian worry there is over the water, because it's not just water pumping that needs to be done, but also water purification, because this water comes out from the desert and needs to be purified. And right now, the electricity is mostly cut off there.

So there is in some sense an urgent humanitarian need for the water, but in other senses it's got a lot to do with bringing the population on side.

COOPER: All right, it sounds like this thing is hearing up in Basra. Christiane, no doubt we will be hearing a lot from you in the coming hours as we focus on this. Christiane Amanpour live -- thanks very much.


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