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Update From Basra

Aired March 28, 2003 - 03:02   ET


CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to Christiane Amanpour, who is somewhere near Basra.
Christiane -- can you tell us exactly where you are? Is that possible?

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Yes, indeed. We are with the divisional headquarters of the British on the road to Basra, somewhat outside Basra, and we're getting lots of briefings about what's going on there, in addition to what the embed journalists are getting closer to the front.

And what we've been told, some new information as of this morning, one of the British armored infantry brigades up near the western part of Basra, which has been there for a while, today is reporting that something like 1,000 to 2,000 Basra civilians have attempted to leave the city. And that as they were trying to cross the bridge that poured them out of the city to the west, the local irregular militia that we've been talking about for quite a while now apparently -- quote -- "engaged them from the side." Now, this is military-speak for taking them on with weapons.

The thing is, we don't know whether there are any casualties. These people were fired at, we understand. And what we do know, according to the British, is that the people then turned around and fled back into the city.

So this matches the information that we've been getting from the British, and that is the big-picture information, they are trying to basically kill of the irregular forces, the Saddam Fedayeens, the Baath Party political militias, who they believe are controlling the population and forbidding the population from either breaking out of Basra or welcoming the British troops in.

In any event, they are reporting this movement that was attempted out of the city today, and they’re saying that the British are now militarily engaged with these militias.

Again, we don't know. We're told there is no word on casualties.

But what they're trying to do in the overall pictures, the British, as I said, is try to separate these militias and the Baath Party political leadership in Basra from the civilian population. So they're attacking with conventional heavy armor.

And they're also trying to win hearts and minds and instill confidence in the population to get them to rise up, trying to deliver human aid, but that is being significantly restricted, if not made impossible, around Basra because they can't get in, and because so far, big numbers, big amounts of humanitarian aid has not yet arrived in southern Iraq -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Some civilians have managed to get out of the city, though. We talked to Richard Gaisford, a British reporter who is embedded there, and he told us that people are coming out and troops have managed to give them packets of food and even radios. Are you seeing that, too?

AMANPOUR: Well, there was some evidence of that yesterday, several hundred maybe coming out of the city. But again, today, perhaps because the militias have got wise to these people trying to come out -- it's hard to speculate -- but all we can tell you is that the British would like to see the population have the space to rise up. They're trying to kill off these militias. They're trying to kill off the Baath Party political leadership.

And all we know is the latest information is that between those 1,000 and 2,000 civilians today, this morning, tried to get out, were fired on by these militias, and turned around and went back in.

So that in the broad picture seems to be the ongoing struggle, to try to as I say get these Saddam loyalists, militias, away from the population.

COSTELLO: It's so important to get control of the city. Can you tell us at all how close British troops are to controlling Basra?

AMANPOUR: Well, you know, at the beginning they told us controlling Basra was not an objective. The objective was to be welcomed in and to distribute humanitarian aid and get the Basra civilians to, you know, welcome the British and the allied invasion, to sort of have them say, we're happy to be liberated. Well, that hasn't happened yet.

And what they're now trying to do, the British, is basically try to wear down, kill off - whatever word you want to use -- neutralize the military resistance they're getting from inside Basra; in other words, the regular army units that have pulled back into Basra over the last week and also these irregulars.

And small snippets of information that are emerging suggests that perhaps the civilians who do want to, you know, get out, who do want some freedom of movement, not only politically but probably for food and humanitarian reasons as well, are apparently being prevented from doing so by those militias loyal to the Iraqi regime.

COSTELLO: And I suspect it's very difficult to know just how many irregulars are operating inside of Basra.

AMANPOUR: It is difficult. The original number we were told was 1,000 or so. But today, there are a couple -- actually about four prisoners of war who are around our camp, and they're being guarded by British soldiers. One of those says that he belongs to the Arabic Al Jaysh al-Quds (ph), which is the Army of Jerusalem. And as we know over the past several years, this is a militia or an army that Saddam Hussein has created as sort of their symbolic quest to free Palestine. It's called the Army of Jerusalem.

This man has told the British interrogating him here that there were about 4,000 of him inside Basra before the bombing, that about half deserted when the bombing started, that they had been told to take off their uniforms, to put on civilian clothes, mix with the population and keep them under control.

So again, anecdotal little portions of information coming out that hopefully will eventually paint a bigger picture until the situation is such that one can get in and get independent confirmation.

COSTELLO: All right, you stay safe, Christiane Amanpour. I know you have to go -- Christiane Amanpour reporting live from Basra.


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