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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

U.S. Paratroopers Drop Into Northern Iraq

Aired March 27, 2003 - 03:12   ET

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

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We've been talking a lot about what's going on in northern Iraq in Kurdish-controlled territories. And we're going to check in with our Brent Sadler, who has seen an exclusive. He was there when -- OK, well, let's go to Brent Sadler near Kalak in northern Iraq.
Brent -- tell us a little bit about the last 18 hours or so there. It's been pretty exciting.

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Indeed it has, Anderson. We now have the entry of U.S. paratroopers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade. They came in, in dramatic style overnight, just over 10 hours ago.

They flew in on aircraft, 1,000 paratroopers, just after 1:00 local time; 100 paratroops at a time came out of those aircraft -- they're called sticks -- 100 at a time at 1,200 feet, the drop altitude operational height. And they came down through the night sky, floating, they told me, for about 45-50 seconds, coming down pretty quickly because of the weight of their equipment. Even though they're lightly armed, they're still carrying quite a lot of weight. They thumped into the ground, the ground pretty soft after more than two days of torrential rain.

Now, after the drop, we were able to get the first television crew to get to the paratroopers, and we saw them gathering from the drop line. If you imagine, if you've got 1,000 paratroopers coming out of the sky, they really cover a fairly big area in terms of the drop zone.

So each of those groups of 100 men had to assemble together. We saw them in those groups in the distance in the green pastures with mountains on either side of this airstrip where they came down. Pretty incredible scenes as they gathered, assembled. And then we really started seeing them get to work, digging slit trenches, creating perimeter security.

One of the immediate problems they had was the mud. Very many of them were caked in mud. They had landed, squished into the soft earth. Their weapons had gotten muddy, so they were very quickly getting their knives out, cleaning equipment and getting on with the job of establishing their presence on the ground.

And pretty quickly after, making sure it was OK to approach, I walked up to the first line of paratroopers and asked them how the drop had gone.

(BEGIN VIDEO CLIP)

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Everything went according to plan. The planes came in, dropped us off, just like how we normally do business. Well, all of the men are feeling fine. We landed with all of our equipment. We are digging into positions right now just to set up a perimeter first, and then we just take everything day by day as the situation develops.

(END VIDEO CLIP)

SADLER: Now, of course, they have dropped into friendly territory, territory that's controlled by Kurdish forces. But paratroopers did tell me they were concerned about the possibility of terrorist threats.

I did see an amazing scene of a shepherd walking through one of the groups of paratroopers. He looked at them for a moment or two, waved, smiled, and then carried on tending to his flock. Quite a remarkable scene there.

I'm now going to bring in CNN's Ben Wedeman, who has been seeing the action, the airstrike activity along the ridge line behind us, for the fourth or fifth straight day now coalition airstrikes in this area.

Ben -- what did you see?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Brent, it was just after sunrise at about 6:30 in the morning, five hours ago, we saw planes, two planes, flying overhead, basically circling slowly. And then after about 10 minutes of that, we saw a huge blast on the Iraqi ridge line behind us. Those are the Iraqi army front line positions. A big blast, big black smoke going up. And then about five minutes later, another 10 minutes after that, another blast. This went on for about 40 minutes in total.

Now, this is a continuation of the kind of airstrikes we saw beginning yesterday in the Kurdish town of Chamchamal, which is outside the city of Kirkuk. And it continued, as you saw yesterday, another strike in this area.

Now, the war began with strategic bombing with cruise missiles of places like Mosul and Kirkuk. But now it appears that the bombing is moving toward more military front-line targets on the assumption that they're softening up those targets for an eventual ground push by these U.S. forces that Brent saw this morning, in addition to the 60,000 or 70,000 Kurdish fighters in this area who have been looking forward to the arrival of American forces in this area to start the push in the north.

SADLER: Ben, thanks for that update.

So what we have on the ground here now is continued airstrike activity and the beginning of plan B, if you like, for the northern Iraqi front. We know that the problems with Turkey precluded the buildup here of some 60,000 U.S. troops and heavy armor and weaponry. That didn't happen. So this is plan B now coming into effect.

These 1,000 paratroopers, we expect, according to Kurdish sources on the ground here, will be augmented by several thousand more paratroopers in the coming days. They've now secured this airfield. They control it. They'll be bringing in communications, air traffic control, and we expect to see a buildup of forces and equipment on the personnel carriers and heavy weaponry as things progress.

Just one point to note. All those 1,000 paratroopers came down in one piece. Sometimes you can get accidents on occasions like this. It's very, very unusual, rare I would say, to have a parachute drop like this on camera in a combat zone. And the paratroopers got down in one piece, mostly bruises, one or two light sprains, but bumps and bruises from the rocks which were in the earth in the drop zone they came in. But as I say, two days of heavy rain made that landing a lot softer than it otherwise would have been.

Back to you -- Anderson.

COOPER: Brent, the pictures you brought back are just extraordinary of that landing, and we're going to show them as we continue talking maybe in a split screen or something.

I've got two questions for you, though, Brent. One, those positions that Ben had talked about, the softening up if you will, how far are those Iraqi positions from where -- from the airfield, Harir airfield, where the paratroopers jumped into?

SADLER: Right, let me give you a little geography now. The airfield is at a place called Harir. That's about 30 miles northeast of Erbil, which is the main population center in this area. Those paratroopers are now digging in an area about, I guess, an hour and 20 minutes' drive from this location.

The Iraqi front lines -- oh, there, that ridge line you can see behind me, I guess then that must be what, about three miles away, I'd say?

WEDEMAN: It's about two-and-a-half to three miles.

SADLER: So, you know, we have this incredible situation where, you know, those paratroopers are now building up on the ground here, and we have to try and work out how things are going to proceed from here, Ben. I mean, we're talking about plan B now, softening up of targets, as you were just explaining, build up of forces.

The Kurds want to see an active northern front to put more pressure on Saddam, don't they?

WEDEMAN: They definitely do, and they've been quite impatient in recent weeks to see a U.S. force arrive, and of course, plan A, the 62,000 U.S. forces never showed up. And obviously, it's going to be up to the Kurds to really be the main force in the northern front.

Now, the Kurds, as I said 60,000-70,000 men, but they're lightly armed, but they do have experience. They know Iraqi tactics well. Many of them were in the Iraqi army. Many of their officers trained in Iraqi officers' school.

So they are ready, and they're very familiar with the territory in the north. Unlike the south where the United States and British are basically fighting by themselves against the Iraqi army, here they'll be supplemented by a very experienced force that's very familiar with the terrain.

SADLER: Indeed, and if we can just get back to those pictures, Anderson. It was quite remarkable to notice just how calm and relaxed these paratroopers were. Bear in mind they had flown from Italy, a pretty long flight across to northern Iraq. They then had to parachute, a very, you know, risky business at the best of times, particularly in darkness at low altitude in, you know, hostile terrain, although this is friendly territory, the potentially hostile. They have to pretend or have to create the situation whereby they can expect anything to happen.

And they came down. And then as light, daybreak, came, we could see them very, alert, very committed, very interested to know from me what was happening in the south of Iraq, what was happening in the fighting on those front lines. Very committed young men telling me their training was kicking in, they're focused, and they're ready to fulfill whatever mission they're asked to do.

Now, as far as liaison, that's already going on. We already know that the Kurds are assisting U.S. Special Forces in forward air control, helping in target identification, and I think we've been seeing that in progress, having seen what's been happening in this sector over the last couple of days -- Ben.

WEDEMAN: Yes, well, as we know, there's been a small but strong force of contingent of U.S. Special Forces in the north for quite some time, but obviously it's not until you get a larger force, like we're talking about here, eventually 6,000 to 7,000 American troops in the area, that you're going to see real progress on the ground.

Now, the expectation is that the U.S. forces are going to provide the sort of heavy machinery, the heavy equipment and artillery and tanks that the Kurds simply don't have. The Kurds, with the assistance of the kind of airstrikes we've seen in this area and in the Chamchamal area since yesterday, is going to really provide that critical assistance to the Kurds as they try to push ahead against Iraqi forces.

COSTELLO: Brent, Ben?

SADLER: Right, and there's also another point that's worth making. Those aircraft are softening up not only those lines behind me, but also taking out artillery and other pieces that still are in a position behind those ridge lines to threaten, to throw rockets or artillery shells at Kurdish population centers.

So now that the Americans are here on the ground and visible, you know, the threat level that the Iraqi leader, the Iraqi President Saddam Hussein, may try and do something in response is a distinct possibility -- Anderson. CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Brent, this is Carol Costello. I just had a question for you. I know there was some concern that Turkish troops would come into that part of Iraq. Because of the presence of U.S. soldiers right now, do you think that will help to keep the Turkish troops out?

SADLER: Well, the Turks have more or less come to an agreement with the United States that Turkey would not deploy its forces in northern Iraq at this time. Note that "at this time." The window is still open if things go wrong in any way here. If Turkey feels that there is going to be a huge exodus of refugees towards the Turkish border, there are acts of terror, or perhaps more importantly for Ankara, if there is any scenario in the unfolding days or weeks that could lead Ankara to believe that the Kurds were striking for independence.

But really this agreement I think between the U.S., the Kurds and the Turks is really significant in terms of deconfliction of this area and getting on with the main job (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of defeating Saddam Hussein, and really for the allied coalition, Ben, to actually get a defeat in one of the cities either in the south or perhaps here now in Kirkuk or Mosul.

WEDEMAN: Yes, that's right. Really the -- we've heard for instance from the commander of U.S. forces in the north, Major General Osman (ph), who is with the U.S. Marine Corps, that really his first task is what he calls "deconfliction," which is basically to avoid any sort of clashes or problems between the various forces involved in the north.

And yesterday, for instance, we followed him around for a while. He was going around Erbil, the main Kurdish stronghold in this area, something like a local politician, meeting with the Turk imams, meeting with the Kurds, having very public lunches with them so to speak, to try to create an atmosphere where the level of distrust, the level of uncertainty, is reduced, and therefore the United States and the Kurds can push ahead and put these problems behind them.

Back to you.

COOPER: All right, Brent and Ben, I appreciate your joining us this morning. It was very interesting. Thanks for joining us.

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