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Interview With British Military Spokesman

Aired March 27, 2003 - 02:40   ET


AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: More on what the British forces are encountering. We're joined now by Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vernon, who is the British military spokesman. You've no doubt seen his work in the briefings out of Qatar.
Sir, it's good to have you with us. What is the situation, as best you know it right now, in Basra?

COL. CHRIS VERNON, BRITISH MILITARY SPOKESMAN: The British military forces are west and on the outskirts of Basra. The Baath Party headquarters has been demolished there, and that is absolutely critical because we are quite clear that the Baath Party organization is that which we must destroy to delink that political oppressive regime from the people. That is what our main effort is, at the moment.

BROWN: And you are absolutely certain that that building has been destroyed?

VERNON: It does no longer exist.

BROWN: And how much problem is it causing -- how much -- how much problem is it causing that the Iraqis are using these unconventional or hiding weapons in schools and hospitals and this and that, blending in with the population -- how much more difficult is that making things?

VERNON: More difficult. We're dealing with Iraqi conventional forces who have pulled back into Iraq to some extent. As soon as they show themselves, they're being destroyed. And that happened last night. Three tanks came out of Basra towards the southeast and were destroyed by air. The irregular forces -- we believe there are no more than a thousand in the whole of Basra. They are operating from the Baath Party headquarters and under that political control. Hence my previous statement that is our main target, to eradicate that Baath Party and irregular capability.

BROWN: Is there anything in the British experience in Northern Ireland that is helpful in prosecuting this situation?

VERNON: Indeed, it is. And let's go further back than Northern Ireland. We've got experience of counter-insurgency operations in Borneo, Malaya, Cyprus, right back for our last 30 years of military history. And on the other hand, therefore, while we are prosecuting these offensive operations against the Baath Party, we are now undertaking, effectively, a hearts-and-minds campaign to try and win over the civilians, instill in them a degree of confidence in ourselves. Bringing in humanitarian aid helps. Stopping with our patrols, talking to them, not appearing aggressive to them, to bring them over onto our side. All part of the same thing, almost a twin- track approach. Hit the Baath Party hard and the irregulars while trying to win over the people of the Basra province.

BROWN: And we just -- we just saw a report by a British reporter out of Umm Qasr, and I would say that what he found and how -- we can make what of it we do, is there's a great deal of skepticism about the intentions of the coalition.

VERNON: That may be the case at the moment. That is not the perception we wish to create. Hence I go back to my previous statement. We are making every attempt now to win over these people with a hearts-and-minds campaign in the way I described to you in my previous comments.

BROWN: OK. How -- how successful are you now at getting in these supplies? You're talking about food and water and the rest. How successful has that been?

VERNON: Some have come in by road across Kuwait. We were hoping to get the Royal Fleet Auxiliary ship, naval ship Sir Galahad, into Umm Qasr today. That has now been delayed 24 hours because there are reports of mines in the waterway coming in. We'll get that in as soon as we can. That is carrying huge supplies of water, which we believe is the critical thing they need. Also, it's got food and medical supplies on it in large numbers.

BROWN: At about this point last night, we were seeing reports that you believed there was an uprising of some magnitude in Basra. Do you still believe that?

VERNON: We've never reported there was a significant uprising there. I think that's been reported by the press. We've said there were indications that there may be. We do not have an accurate resolution on that -- on that issue. We are not in the center of Basra to be able to report that. I repeat what I said. We're on the west and to the outskirts.

BROWN: Were you counting on some sort of uprising to make the plan more efficient or more effective?

VERNON: Oh, clearly. We would strongly applaud an uprising. And I go back to what we're trying to do, delink with the Baath people -- the Baath Party -- sorry -- from the people and win over the people, to instill in them the confidence and eradicate the fear of oppressive action back on them, so that they may rise against the Baath Party that is putting them down.

BROWN: You think they still don't yet believe that the -- in this case, the British or the coalition will be successful, so that is what is keeping them from rising up? Is that what -- what I hear you saying?

VERNON: Yes. This is a -- this is a police-oppressive state -- you really need to understand that, watching from back there -- on the lines of some of the worst regimes that have ever been seen in the world. The people are kept down. The people in Basra were put down brutally in 1991, following the Gulf war. And therefore, what we've got to do is instill this confidence to rise up. And we're working away at that.

BROWN: And just finally, do you -- can you give us any sense of -- you say you're on the west of the city. Are you going into the city? When will you go into the city? Are you close to going into the city?

VERNON: We're not going to tell you what we're going to do. That plays entirely into the other people's hands. Just look at what we've done in Al Zabar (ph), one of the suburbs. We have been in there. We've extracted Baath Party senior officials. We are doing this on our terms, as we think, putting in forces. But we're not going to say when and really how.

BROWN: Well, we try, anyway. Thank you, Lieutenant Colonel Vernon. Thank you for your time today. I know it's much in demand. Thank you, sir, very much.

And that's Lieutenant Colonel Chris Vernon, who's the British military spokesman, comes out and briefs in Qatar. And he stays on message pretty good, and we appreciate that. We understand that, as well.

David -- OK, we'll take a quick break, and we'll continue in just a moment.


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