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U.S. Forces Continue to Occupy Nasiriya

Aired March 28, 2003 - 03:19   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: We just got Ben (sic) up on the bird. He is embedded with the 2nd Marines somewhere near Nasiriya.
Art -- or he's on the phone. Art -- what can you tell us?

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I am standing in Nasiriya in between three Marine battalions who occupy the city now in different parts of the south, the north, and they are trying to bring some order to it. It's getting more secure every day.

They continue to interview young men in robes, trying to find out who are friendly and who are foe. It is difficult to tell, because many of these, as we've discussed, are Fedayeen they know, and they put clothes on, they go to weapons stashes in the fields, and they fire the weapons, they put them down knowing that civilians won't be shot, and they vanish back into the town.

The area that I am standing on right now, Anderson, is a vast expanse of tall, green grass outside of one of the headquarters on the edge of a swamp, and it's called "no man's land," because it's like sniper grass they used to call Vietnam, and that is a war that many are comparing this to right now, because you don't know who may be hiding there.

In fact, just a little while ago, a fellow popped up in a gray robe near the area where my unit was, and Marines ran out to him, told him to put his hands up, and he was taken in. The story he gave was that he was a farmer who happened to fall asleep in the grass, that he was trying to get home two miles away, and it was just too far to walk. Well, he wasn't dressed like a farmer. He didn't have the feet like a farmer. He had a military haircut. He looked well-fed.

And the translator was able to put together enough suspicion to bring him back to where I'm standing now, what's an EPW holding facility. It's a former girls' school in Nasiriya, Anderson.

There were 375 EPWs here last night. They were taken further south for questioning and processing, and more are expected today.

Back to you.

COOPER: Art, a lot I want to ask you. There has been so much activity in Nasiriya. It has been the source of a lot of discussion here in the United States. I want to try to get as much as we can out of you.

Characterize, if you will, the fighting there in the last 12 to 24 hours.

HARRIS: Well, Anderson, what I've been told is that there continue to be sporadic engagements of individual Fedayeen or militia. They continue to find and discover stashes of RPGs and weapons in the fields. The unit I'm with, the Light Armored Reconnaissance Unit, destroyed several Iraqi armored vehicles. They were unoccupied, but they were in dug out -- or dug-in positions that could have been used to ambush troops, and they were taken out.

They're going out again today to destroy more artillery positions that have been found, because what they do is they leave and they come back. So it has been untraditional warfare.

As far as wounded, there were about 20 Marines wounded the night before last in a firefight with enemy that was also an incident of friendly fire. In fact, I was in the middle of that, Anderson, riding down what you'd called "ambush alley," when all of a sudden a convoy came under intense machine gun fire from a bridge, and our unit fired back.

From what I can tell by piecing it together, there was another Marine unit on the other side. They thought our unit was enemy. They started firing back, and you had an amazingly intense firefight between two Marine units unbeknownst to each other. It was a miracle no one was killed. About 20 Marines were wounded, and a number were Medevaced to safety.

So it was a very scary two hours, I have to say, with tracer bullets going over the top of the truck I was riding in, and the machine gunner on top unloading two boxes of 50-caliber rounds. The rounds bounced down through the hole in the truck, and they were red- hot and bounced off my helmet, and luckily I was wearing one.

Anderson -- back to you.

COOPER: Yes, certainly a good thing, Art. You know, from over here when we hear about Marines having to try to figure out who is a civilian and who is not a civilian, on this end in America just listening to that it sounds very sort of antiseptic, very dry. You are there on the ground where it is hot, it is dirty, and it is very, very difficult work.

From what you've seen, just talk a little bit about how difficult it is trying to figure out who is friend, who is foe and who is just simply passing by.

HARRIS: Well, the first time I saw the Marines start searching people, Anderson, they were told, you know, stop and question anybody who looks suspicious. Well, as one Marine told me, hey, we are in Iraq for the first time. We are in an area that hasn't changed much since biblical times 6,000 years ago near what is supposed to be the birthplace of Abraham, near the monument Ur of the Chaldees, and you know, these are people who look a lot like the pictures of those days. They are, you know, walking in their traditional robes. Some are tethering sheep or cattle, and so obviously they are farmers. And so they are stopped and allowed to pass. Others who are traveling in twos or threes in robes who appear to have military haircuts are stopped and searched. People look at their feet. If their feet are in sandals or if they have boots on, then they are more suspicious to the questioners.

And so it is really strange to these young Marines, Anderson. They are not used to playing military security in a land they do not know. But they're getting better at it, and they're treating the people here with, you know, respect, with kindness.

Yesterday, I watched about 200 people leaving the city. These were women in black robes balancing giant baskets and bundles on their heads, babies crying. And medics...


HARRIS: ... or Navy corpsmen were taking care of the children and the babies who were sick and passing them to higher medical, you know, facilities...

COOPER: Right.

HARRIS: ... if they were extremely sick.

And so it's difficult to tell friend from foe, but they have a town of people with weapons and also young men carrying military clothes in bags. So these people were passed to EPW camps on down the line.

COOPER: Right.

HARRIS: Back to you.

COOPER: All, Art Harris, thanks very much for checking in with us.


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