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U.S. Bombs Possible Militia Meeting

Aired March 29, 2003 - 03:33   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Explosions rocked Baghdad again today. Iraq's Information Ministry was among the targets of the latest round of bombing.
Arab media are reporting another explosion in the marketplace had killed 52 people. Iraqi officials blame coalition air strikes, but U.S. officials cannot confirm exactly what hit the area.

U.S. war planes bombed a building in Basra where U.S. Central Command says about 200 members of the Iraqi militia were meeting. Central Command says the F-15E fighter planes destroyed their target.

Coalition strikes targeted a hospital it Rutbah in western Iraq. Intelligence indicated that the hospital had been taken over by Baath Party officials. Coalition sources say that Saddam Hussein loyalists have been hiding in hospitals and in schools.

Saddam Hussein's control over Iraq is eroding, that is according to U.S. officials. General Richard Meyer, chairman of the joint chiefs of staff, said 35 to 40 percent of Iraq is no longer under the control of the Iraqi leader.

The State Department issued a health warning to Americans planning to travel to Asia. China, Hong Kong, Singapore and Hanoi were on the list of danger zones for a mystery illness that has killed more than 50 people worldwide. The cause of the illness, which is called SARS, is still unknown.

Anderson, you take it from here.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: All right, Daryn, thanks very much.

It's always odd -- it's sort of jarring to hear non-war-related news at a time like this, but it was good for the update. Thanks very much, Daryn.

We're going to go check in with our Brent Sadler, who is in northern Iraqi town of Kalak. There has been a lot of activity there, and Brent was at that Harir Air Base when the airborne troops actually dropped in. He was there to greet them.

Let's check in and see what's happening now -- Brent.

BRENT SADLER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Thanks, Anderson. Good morning.

You join me in a lull in what has been many, many hours of intense bombing along the northern front.

I can just see, right now, if I peer into the sky, some very, very high altitude vapor trails of coalition aircraft, very, very high indeed. Could well be reconnaissance runs assessing bomb damage after really very heavy overnight air strikes by coalition aircraft in and around the city of Mosul.

We have some night scope video of what was happening here last night. There were air raids about every hour or so, from soon after sunset. Huge explosions really shaking this area, even though the point of impact was many miles from our position. And this was really going on through the night. Attempts by the coalition to degrade Saddam Hussein's defenses around the oil city of Mosul.

Now, if you come back to me live from my position here, I can tell you what's been happening, what we've seen this morning, and if we go past my shoulder here, a look to the front line, the ridge line there, beyond that ridge line is a high (UNINTELLIGIBLE). We've been taking a look with our binoculars here and we've just about been able to make out some of the buildings which have been collapse on top of that theater (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

You probably can't see them in this shot, but certainly we've seen some real evidence here of the impact that these pretty continuous air strikes are having, particularly during the hours of darkness.

Now, also, there's been a development southwest of this area of the northern front at a place called Chamchamal. CNN's Kevin Sites was reporting Friday that the Iraqis holding an important position, a command position, over a main road leading to the oil capitol of Kirkuk.

That position had been abandoned without a ground fight, as it were. Really, it's as a result, it appears, after this heavy bombing, this softening up, of Iraqi positions.

Now, the Kurdish forces on the ground in that area moved forward. This was not a ground fight. This was clearly replacing, filling the vacuum if you like, left by those departing Iraqi soldiers, really giving the Kurds about 12 more miles of territory towards Kirkuk. The city of Kirkuk just about visible from that captured position which the Kurds now hold.

One other element to bring in to this, Anderson, and I'm just being told that aircraft activity is just maybe perhaps starting now. One more element to add has been the continuing build up of American ground forces from the 173rd Airborne brigade, which arrived some 48 hours ago in that dramatic parachute drop into an airstrip at Harir.

This airstrip was build by Saddam Hussein in the early-1980's but has not been used. The strip itself is good, about two miles, so long enough to take heavy military transport aircraft. Now we have the paratroops brigade there, building up supplies, bringing in Humvees, bringing in weapons, building up supplies, ammunition, and really this will be continuing day by day as the U.S. presence builds up here in the north.

And one other footnote, if you like, Anderson, is to tell you that since the Americans came here and since we've seen this more or less daily bombing by airplanes across the northern front, there has been a return by some Iraqi Kurds into the Irbil area, feeling confident that the American forces are on the ground.

However, a note of warning. In Chamchamal, where those positions were abandoned by the Iraqis, pretty soon after they left, Iraqi artillery fire, about six or seven rounds, into Chamchamal, really serving a warning that even though that post was given up without a fight, Iraqi troops are reported to be repositioning and encircling Kirkuk. So the march to Kirkuk is going to take a lot longer, obviously.

Back to you -- Anderson.

COOPER: All right, Brent. Thanks very much, Brent Sadler.

And I think Kevin Sites was reporting that not only were there incoming rounds, but they occurred Thursday -- yes, they occurred right at the time that the Iraqi Kurds were celebrating the retreat of those Iraqi forces. Perhaps some sort of warning to those celebrating, becoming too confident. Don't know.

Brent Sadler, thanks very much, from northern Iraq.

We're going to take a short break. We'll be right back with more.


KAGAN: Throughout this conflict, you haven't heard a lot about Iraqi's Navy. It does have a small one, and British troops near Basra moved in to do battle with what was left of Iraq's Navy.

Bill Neely is a British reporter who is embedded with the Royal Marines, and he has more on that effort.


BILL NEELY, JOURNALIST (voice-over): They gathered in the dead of night for the first naval commando mission of the war. They had invaded across the desert. Now marines and munitions were packed into 10 speed boats.

Their target: Iraqis fleeing Basra and the remnants of Iraq's Navy.

By sunrise, with four hovercraft leading them in, they reached Iraq's main naval base. Heavily armed, they boarded gunboats long abandoned by their crews. And with a single hammer, began dismantling the Iraqi Navy.

These boats helped Saddam fight three wars. This will be their last. Pushing north, the marines check for sea mines and the Iraqis who might have laid them, but the bunkers are empty. Not so the hidden creeks of this polluted waterway. More gunboats, dealt with in the same way.

Saddam never had much of a Navy. He's got even less of one tonight.

(on camera): The marines are now clearing this waterway all the way to the Basra line. Inside the besieged city, which is smoldering on the horizon, Iraqi troops are trapped by land and now by sea.

(voice-over): On the sand banks, more smoking gunboats and more explosions. The arms and ammunition that kept Saddam's grip tight here is disappearing fast. The Royal Marines are destroying his power by land and by sea.

Bill Neely, with the Royal Marines, on the Shat at Basra in southern Iraq.


KAGAN: And speaking of the British, we're standing by. Within the next 15 or 20 minutes, we expect for them to have a military briefing from right here in Kuwait City. Anderson, we will have that for our viewers so they can watch it live, whether in the states or with us here in Kuwait.

For now, back to you.

COOPER: All right, great. That should be about 4:00 A.M. Eastern time, so we'll look forward to that, Daryn.

Joining us on the phone, I'm told we have Alex Perry, "TIME" magazine's Alex Perry. He's somewhere in southern Iraq with the army's 3rd Infantry Division.

Alex, what can you tell us? What's happening around you?

ALEX PERRY, "TIME": Well, just about half-an-hour ago, the unit I'm with, Charlie Rock (ph) company of the 3rd Bridge of the 3rd (UNINTELLIGIBLE) made contact with a bunch of what seems to be army irregulars, coming out from the town of (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

Our Charlie company has done sort of a probe toward the town to do some sort of reconnaissance. We came under mortar fire and small arms fire, perhaps some heavy machine guns as well.

So they engaged, shot back, destroyed a building where mortar fire seemed to be coming from, and there were perhaps sort of 10, 15 Iraqi soldiers, and then we have now withdrawn to a position maybe a kilometer back, awaiting further orders.

COOPER: Alex, you were saying these irregulars came from the town -- has the army been in that town at all? PERRY: No. We're on a sort of blocking position outside of town, holding a bridge, and this position has been held for four or five days now.

Interestingly enough, when we advanced toward the town, just on this reconnaissance mission, the soldiers -- we could see white flags being waved from the town, and from those exact same positions is where we came under fire from a few moments later.

COOPER: Alex, I'm interested to hear, just from your personal perspective, when you are in that situation, and you're with soldiers, and they see the white flag, what are the soldiers, the American soldiers you are with, what is their reaction? Do they -- I mean, it must be -- it's obviously a very difficult situation. How do they react to it?

PERRY: It's a very difficult situation. I mean, their orders are really not to engage unless engaged.

Before the Iraqis opened fire on us, we could see trucks, you know, full of personnel, circling around, trying to flank us. But until they open fire, because they're dressed in civilian clothes, you can't really tell whether they're enemy or simply a farmer going around their business.

But at the point they open fire, then they become enemy. The sort of instructions to the soldiers here is to treat every civilian as a possible enemy, you know, and to be wary.

COOPER: And yet there's that fine line, treat every civilian as a possible enemy, and yet don't -- I mean, on the one hand, it's treat them as an enemy, on the other hand it's don't treat them as an enemy, I suppose.

PERRY: Well, that's it. You know, they're fully aware that the Iraqis are dressing in civilian clothes so that the Americans make mistakes. This is the propaganda war that's being fought by the Iraqi side. If Americans make mistakes and kill genuine civilians, then obviously that's a huge blow to the American drive.

So it is a very, very difficult situation, and, you know, a very frustrating one for the soldiers here.

COOPER: Yes, it's got to be.

Alex Perry, "Time" magazine, appreciate you joining us. Thank you very much. Stay safe.

We'll be right back.


COOPER: Operation Iraqi Freedom is just some 9 days old now, but among some people, plans for a post-war Iraq are already a priority.

Saad Al-Saraf is an Iraqi native who's lived in London for 25 years. He's the founding member of the Iraqi Reconstruction Group. He's given a lot of thought to an Iraq without Saddam Hussein, and we are pleased he joins us this morning.

Thanks for being with us, Mr. Saraf.

Let me ask you -- just the other day, we heard from some of the opposition groups who have been meeting in northern Iraq, talking about forming a provisional government. Do you think that is a positive step in terms of the reconstruction, the eventual reconstruction of Iraq?

SAAD AL-SARAF, IRAQI RECONSTRUCTION GROUP: I think it is a positive step. I think it ties in with the main aim and objective of the coalition, which is to encourage Iraqis to basically takeover, I would be in favor of this rather than a military administration.

We are Iraqis who are brought up in Iraq and lived in the West as well, and together with Iraqis inside, we can help redevelop and reconstruct Iraq based on democratic principle, and have real civil society.

COOPER: And that is the question, I suppose. How much involvement will Iraqis who are still in the country, who are still in Baghdad and elsewhere throughout the country, and perhaps who are still, who are part of this regime. I mean, we've heard a lot from U.S. administration officials saying that, you know, there is an Iraqi civil bureaucracy that could perhaps be utilized in a post-Saddam Hussein regime.

Is that going to be a difficult dance, figuring out who is compromised by the past regime and who has not been?

AL-SARAF: It is not difficult.

Obviously, we are not here to throw everything away and restart all over again. We have to work with the existing network.

What we need to do is, we need to train and we need to develop people, and we need to raise the awareness of what a new civil society means and what democratic freedoms have to be there.

So, obviously, there is going to be a lot of work with the existing network with civil servants and the second and third tier, and that's where the Iraqi Reconstruction Group is working. It's not working only on the ministerial level, but it's on the second and third tier, which are vital in getting things to run smoothly.

What we have is, we put the best of both worlds. We are Iraqis who were born and brought up in Iraq for part of our life, and we spent a considerable amount in the West. So we are there to encourage and establish links between Iraqi government and industry with the West as well as encourage companies in the West to help in the reconstruction and rebuilding effort in Iraq.

COOPER: I wanted to get to the roll that you think the U.N. should play in all of this, but before we do, I just want to ask one more question about this bureaucracy, this civil bureaucracy, as you said, the second and third tier.

To what degree is it infused, or fused together, with Baath Party? I mean, are -- and I simply do not know the answer to this, which is why I'm asking -- are Baath Party officials part and parcel of this civil bureaucracy?

AL-SARAF: Well, that varies, because, I mean, there was a period of time when everybody was forced to join the Baath Party to gain entry into university. So there are people who have been forced to enter the Baath Party.

And there are strong sort of followers of the Baath regime. So we have to distinguish.

The majority of people have been forced to join the Baath Party, and they're OK, but there are a handful who sort of see their interests and future lies with Saddam Hussein, and they would go down with a drowning man, basically.

So I think it's -- they are there, but because the fear and atrocities committed, you know, that sort of -- does not encourage them to come forward. But once there is change, you will see different Iraqis in those positions.

COOPER: Very, very briefly, what sort of a role do you see for the United Nations? Do you think the United Nations should run Iraq, basically, in the short term?

AL-SARAF: The United Nations can be a bureaucracy and a co-angle (ph), but, I mean, what we can do, and I think what we ought to do, the Iraqis have got to have a leading role right now.

We can act as -- can manage the process. And we can work with the United Nations and with the coalition and with our allies and friends. But not sort of superimposed, you know. You can't superimpose something on the will of the people.

COOPER: And as you say, it may not be necessary because of this civil bureaucracy which is in place and perhaps the infrastructure which will remain after this war.

Saad Al-Saraf, appreciate you joining us very much. It was interesting to hear your perspective. Saad Al-Saraf -- Daryn.

I'm sorry, I thought Daryn was available.

We're actually going to go to break. We'll be back in a moment.


COOPER: Welcome back.

In about six minutes or so we are anticipating a briefing from the Hilton Hotel in Kuwait City, Colonel Chris Vernon, the British military spokesman, is supposed to give that briefing. That's going to be around 4:00 A.M. Eastern time. Significant because there is a lot that we would like to know about what is going on in Basra right now, which is where the British have basically ringed the city.

There was a report from CENT COM early on Saturday that U.S. aircraft attacked and destroyed a building. It was a two-story building, where it's believed some 200 of these Iraqi irregular fighters were inside meeting.

Precision-guided missiles went inside the building on a delayed fuse. They actually entered the building and then exploded from the inside, so according to CENT COM very little damage to surrounding buildings, to a nearby Catholic Church. But apparently that building was destroyed.

We are hoping to hear something about that from this briefing that should take place, as we said, in about 5 minutes from now.

Before we get to that, though, we just want to move on to this story by Candy Crowley. Don't know if you saw it earlier in the day, but it is a very moving piece of work.

In the heat of battle, time can literally stand still. We have heard that from so many marines and soldiers in this conflict. Or, some say, the time passes in a flash.

Our Candy Crowley says for combat veterans, the aftermath of war often lasts a lifetime.


CANDY CROWLEY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): They are, we are told, well-trained.

SEN. CHUCK HAGEL, VIETNAM WAR VETERAN: This is a messy business. There's nothing very pretty about the training that you take to prepare you for combat, because it is to kill people.

CROWLEY: In the spring of 1970, a squad of U.S. soldiers spotted a small unit of Vietcong it had been circling for days.

Staff Sgt. Tom Ridge opened fire. A Vietcong soldier dropped dead.

(on camera): Did you at the time, or have you since, looked back and pondered on killing someone.


CROWLEY: And what's that like?

RIDGE: It's one of those introspective times, where it's just -- it's just an introspective time, not a public time.

CROWLEY (voice-over): Duke Cunningham was a Vietnam fighter ace, shooting down five enemy planes. After his first, he returned to a ship deck full of sailors and crew cheering, shaking his hand, pushing in to slap his back. REP. DUKE CUNNINGHAM, VIETNAM VETERAN: And one of the guys looks at me and says, Duke, what's it like to kill somebody and all of the sudden, bang, it just hit me. You don't think about those things. It's removed, it's far off, it's not in close.

And I went to the priest, because it bothered me. I knew I could do it again, but it -- I didn't know it was going to bother me as much as it did. And it still does.

CROWLEY: Of all the wounds time does not heal, the ones that fester deep in the soul are the ones you inflict.

RIDGE: It's not something civilized people do. You don't -- it's just not -- it's not a matter of being tormented, but troubled in the sense that that's not what we do unless we're called upon to do it under the most extreme set of circumstances.

CROWLEY: War may sometimes be a necessary thing, but it can never be a natural thing. Training bridges that gap.

Sgt. Chuck Hagel was seriously wounded twice in Vietnam.

HAGEL: You were trained to kill people, because the alternative is, if you are in combat, you will be killed. So your choices are not varied. It's very simple. And so you do what you're trained to do. You do what you're there to do.

And in Vietnam, it was body count.

CROWLEY: Training is what keeps you running toward the front while trucks loaded with dead bodies pass you going the other way.

REP. CHARLES RANGEL, KOREAN WAR VETERAN: It's hard to explain what training can do. Training sets you mind to respond, not to common sense and judgment but to training. You really don't have time to think, I'm going the wrong way. I should be going the other way.

CROWLEY: Later, when he was wounded and trapped behind enemy lines in Korea, Staff Sgt. Charlie Rangel led 40 men fighting their way to safety. He won a Bronze Star.

RANGEL: If you're killing people, it's out of fear, not really, in my opinion, out of bravery. Nobody's looking for medals. Everyone wants to live another day.

CROWLEY: Do not misunderstand. Rangel, Cunningham, Ridge and Hagel are all proud, decorated combat veterans. It's just that decades later, killing still troubles the soul.

Maybe that's a good thing.

(on camera): Did you do it again?

CUNNINGHAM: I did. I shot down four more MiGs. And I often told myself, I said that if I ever get used to this, I shouldn't be here. CROWLEY (voice-over): Candy Crowley, CNN, Washington.



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