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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

Northern Front Being Opened

Aired March 27, 2003 - 02:26   ET

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

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Well, a couple things are happening sort of quickly, on the fly here. Back to northern Iraq first and Ben Wedeman. Our embeds and our correspondents in northern Iraq have been covering the opening of a northern front, which has come through the air, helicopter -- helicopter -- parachute -- soldiers have dropped in by parachute. And we have some pictures of this now coming back. We see them on the ground.
Let's bring Ben in. He's at, I think, the -- where we're trying to feed this stuff out of. Is that about right, Ben?

BEN WEDEMAN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, that's right. I haven't actually seen these pictures, but I do know that these are troops from the 173 Airborne Brigade normally based in Italy. They've arrived at an airstrip not far from Irbil. According to my colleague, Brent Sadler, as many as a thousand of those troops are now on the ground, more expected. Others have arrived in other parts of northern Iraq under Kurdish control.

Now, U.S. officers who are with this group have described the environment into which they are dropping or landing as "semi- permissive." That, of course, in plain English, means it's a friendly environment, the Kurds very anxious, very happy to see American forces arriving in the north. This is probably one of the most hospitable corners of this region for American troops. We've been hearing for weeks, even before the war began, from Kurdish officials that they were waiting for the day, a day like this, when U.S. forces arrive.

Of course, there's a good deal of frustration at the same time, mixed with this relief at their arrival, because initially, the plan was to bring in as many as 62,000 U.S. troops, with everything that normally comes with them -- heavy artillery, tanks, armored personnel carriers, the whole nine yards. In this case, it's a little more difficult to bring that equipment in by air, as opposed to over land through Turkey, which was the original plan. We are told, however, that some heavy equipment will be arriving in the north.

Now, basically, the U.S. contingent in this area may, in the end, total as much as 5,000. That's far less than 62,000, but they will be backed -- supplemented by, so to speak, more than 60,000 Kurdish fighters, who may lack the heavy equipment, but they certainly, Aaron, do not lack the enthusiasm.

BROWN: Well, we see in the pictures, Ben, two helicopters. Those helicopters certainly weren't dropped in. What do you know about them? WEDEMAN: Well, our understanding is that, obviously, U.S. special forces have been on the ground well before the arrival of these troops of the 173rd Airborne Brigade and that those helicopters may belong to those U.S. special forces. Now, over the last weeks and months, actually, there has been a contingent of somewhere between 20 and 30 U.S. special forces on the ground. Within the last three or four days, that number has been increased significantly.

At the moment, really, the Americans are just getting their bearings in the north. The -- basically, the commander of U.S. forces in the north, United States Marines Corps Major General Pete Osman (ph), arrived here on Sunday. He gave a statement for the first time to the press on Monday. So really, it's a gradual process, but certainly, within the last few hours, it's really accelerated dramatically. Dramatically also the acceleration of bombardments of the front line positions, like the one we're at right now. This morning, four very large bombs dropped on Iraqi army fortifications. The same happening yesterday in the area of Chamchamal, which is on the main road between Irbil -- or rather, Suleymaniyah, under Kurdish control, and the city of Kirkuk, under Saddam Hussein's control. So in general, across the board, a dramatic escalation here in the north, Aaron.

BROWN: And it's all happened, really, in about -- almost literally a 24-hour period. It was about this time last night that we first started to see the air come in.

WEDEMAN: Yes. Certainly, basically, yesterday at this time, we were beginning to get reports, for instance, from our colleague, Kevin Sites, in Chamchamal, who was on the scene when some very large explosions went off over some Iraqi fortifications there. And basically, one thing after another. We've really begun to feel the American presence much more than we have in the last month.

For instance, I was just driving through Irbil yesterday, and we came across General Osman, the commander of U.S. forces in the north, and he's making the rounds in Irbil, speaking to various leaders, Kurdish leaders, Turkomen leaders, everyone here, really, to set the ground, to coordinate with all the groups, to get the ball rolling.

BROWN: They talk about preparing the battlefield. Some of that preparation, obviously, is political, when the general's out there talking to the mayors and the city councilmen of one town or another. Ben, thanks.

WEDEMAN: Yes, he's...

BROWN: I'm sorry.

WEDEMAN: Yes, he's been busy really -- yes. He's been busy sort of working like a politician, not a -- not a military man, just really to get everybody on board, to coordinate. It's important for him also to defuse the intense Kurdish concerns that there would be a Turkish invasion. And really, until he could put those concerns to rest, the Kurds really could not focus, would not focus on the issue of confronting the Iraqi forces because, as we've seen in the last several weeks, their real concern was facing the Turks.

For instance, I was at an arms market several weeks ago. People were buying up arms. And I said, Is it for the Iraqis? They said, No, we want to fight the Turks. So really, with that out of the way, the focus definitely will be much more on this area and not on the Turkish-Iraqi border.

BROWN: Ben, thank you. Ben Wedeman, who's up in the northern part of Iraq with a fabulous view of the beginning of what is the northern front.

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