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War in Iraq: Suicide Bomber Kills 4 U.S. Soldiers in Central Iraq

Aired March 29, 2003 - 17:00   ET


WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's get to the movement on the ground now in the war. Today's developments range from a fierce battle to a suicide attack. Let's look at the battle lines.
In central Iraq, a new and deadly tactic by Iraqi forces: suicide bombing. A colonel with the 3rd Infantry describes what happened at a U.S. checkpoint in Najaf.


COL. WILL GRIMSLEY, U.S. ARMY: The driver beckoned them a little bit. And the soldiers approached. As they drew along side the vehicle the driver detonated a bomb killing himself and the four soldiers.


BLITZER: Elsewhere in central Iraq, evidence of what might be a new Iraqi strategy. At a newly established U.S. Marine position signs of Iraqi soldiers who vanished possibly to strike again, leaving behind uniforms and other gear.

UNIDENTIFIED U.S. MARINE: Probably changed into civilian attire. They blend in with the local population.

BLITZER: In the south, Nasiriya, the scene of the most intense fighting over the past two days, Art Harris reports a major firefight today. U.S. Marines on the one side of the Euphrates River and Iraqis firing at them from an apartment building on the other side, a ferocious exchange.

The Marines call in Cobra helicopter gunships, Hellfire missiles pound the Iraqi position. The guns go silent.

In Basra British forces still haven't moved into the city but say they'll target members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. Coalition warplanes take out a building there; 200 militia members may have been inside.

In the north, CNN's Ben Wedeman reports Iraqi forces pull back to the city Kirkuk, holding positions at high ground. Kurdish forces advance near that line but won't go much further until they get more allied support.

Near Chamchamal, artillery rounds, possibly fired by retreating Iraqis, hit positions occupied by Kurdish fighters. No one is seriously hurt. More now on that Iraqi suicide attack that killed four American soldiers in central Iraq. Iraq's Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan vows that today's attack will not be the last.


TAHA YASSIN RAMADAN, VICE PRESIDENT OF IRAQ (through translator): This is only the beginning. And you will hear good news in the coming days. These bastards will be welcomed at the level and in the way they deserve.


BLITZER: Ramadan also says that thousands of Arab volunteers have been pouring into Iraq since the start of the war to fight against allied forces.

There are signs some Iraqi soldiers are fleeing their positions and blending into the civilian population. CNN's Martin Savidge is embedded with the 1st Battalion of the 7th Marines who found ominous signs in central Iraq.


MASTER SGT. HENRY BERGERON, U.S. MARINES: Looks like a basic soldier's uniform.

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN INT'L CORRESPONDENT (voice over): The telltale signs of a vanished army ...

BERGERON: Then the gas mask container.

SAVIDGE: ...that could offer clues of a new kind of threat to U.S. military operations in Iraq.

BERGERON: Look like old radio packs.

SAVIDGE: All around this newly established U.S. Marine position in central Iraq lays evidence of the Iraqi forces that were here before, who appear to have fled at the first sign of U.S. troops.

(on camera): This could be just a small indication of how quickly they left. A teapot down here, with the tea still inside. Master Sergeant Henry Bergeron walks me through the scene like a detective on the case. Boxes, helmets, canteens, and other gear all cast aside. But to the master sergeant it's the abandoned uniforms that say the most.

BERGERON: Looks like they took off all their military uniforms, and left them in place, helmets in place, boots in place, probably changed into civilian attire. They blend in with the local population.

SAVIDGE (voice over): On the ride north the master sergeant and others Marines remember seeing men beside the road in civilian clothes and bare feet. These clues point to an army that didn't fight or surrender, but simply walked away.

Clothing isn't the only thing abandoned. There are also weapons and plenty of ammunition, some of it brand new, still in wrappers.

SAVIDGE (on camera): Here's something else that got left behind, this motorcycle. You see a number of them around here. It might look innocent enough, if it weren't for the machine gun mount.

(voice over): Marine commanders theorize the soldiers who were here have either voluntarily or been forced to join guerrilla units now attacking U.S. military positions; a paramilitary force that is difficult to find and fight and that's diverting American assets from fighting a war to protecting long supply lines.

The caches of weapons are simple to get rid of.

But dealing with this new kind of Iraqi opposition that appears to have sprung from a former army may not be as easy.

Martin Savidge, CNN with the 1st Battalion 7th Marines in central Iraq.


BLITZER: More heavy allied air strikes on Baghdad tonight. Within the past hour, some eyewitnesses have counted as many as 30 explosions. CNN's senior international correspondent Nic Robertson was in Baghdad, until recently being expelled along with the rest of the CNN crew. He's joining us now live from Ruwasheid, Jordan, that's near the Iraqi border.


NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SR. INT'L CORRESPONDENT: Wolf, what we've been able to see this evening in some of the bombing, the pictures of the bombing in Baghdad, and looking from that camera position that looks northwest upstream up the Tigris river.

In the distance we were able to see flashes fairly distant toward the horizon. They seem to be in an area known as Khatamia (ph). That is an area of Baghdad where there are several large military bases, so possibly -- we certainly can't say just from these pictures alone -- but possibly those are the targets.

We also saw earlier on in the evening some flashes much closer to the center of the city. Also there were detonations heard earlier toward the southern edge of the city of Baghdad.

We have seen today on Iraqi television pictures of President Saddam Hussein meeting with members of his cabinet. He had on his left-hand side his deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz. Perhaps what was interesting, particularly, about these pictures -- and not just that President Saddam Hussein seemed much more serious than we've seen him in recent pictures -- was that he seemed much more dressed, overdressed almost, compared to some of the other people in the room, who had their shirts opened at the next line. President Saddam Hussein seemed to be dressed in very bulky clothes. Perhaps for the cold weather that swept through this region a few days ago. Possibly even he may be wearing body armor under that heavy great coat. That's certainly not clear.

We also heard from the vice president, Taha Yassin Ramadan condemning the U.N. Security Council's move to extend the Oil-For-Food Program, the humanitarian program in Iraq. He said it's a violation of the Iraqi government's authority. It's stealing from the Iraqi people. He said, besides the Iraqi people don't need the food at this time.

We also heard from the information minister, Mohammed Saeed as- Sahaf today, vowing Iraqi forces would cut up the coalition supply lines like cutting a snake into pieces, he said.


BLITZER: Nic Robertson monitoring the situation for us in Iraq tonight. Nic, thank you very much.

Let's bring in our military analyst, retired U.S. Army general, the former NATO Supreme Allied Commander General Wesley Clark.

What's your assessment, General Clark, of the phase, the stage in this war right now deep into week two?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK (RET.), FRMR. NATO SUPREME CMDR., CNN MILITARY ANALYST: Well, we're still in keeping with the concept of the plan. We've moved the force up or are in the process of finishing moving all the force up.

We're setting the force so we can do the intensive assault against the Republican Guards and move into Baghdad. We're using air power. The Apaches, artillery long-range rockets against the Republican Guard now, and we're strengthening our security in the rear area.

So this phase may last another three, five, seven days. We don't know really. It depends on several things. It's going to be event driven. It depends on the effectiveness of the airpower against the Republican Guard; the progress of cleaning up the rear area; and their closure on their attack positions by the Marines on the eastern side of the allied offensive.

BLITZER: General, the Pentagon said today there are some 300,000 coalition forces now in the region. And 100,000 of them or so are actually in Iraq and another 100,000 are about to move into the theater from various locations. Was this smart to have this sort of rolling introduction of forces instead of gathering everyone here at the same time?

CLARK: Well, it was the tactic that emerged for a variety of reasons, Wolf. I think in defense of the administration, it has to be said that the failure by Turkey to permit the move of the 4th Infantry Division through Turkey, did cut the forces available at the outset. That having been said, of course, it's always -- any general will tell you, it's better to have more force, more than sufficient force, rather than to have exactly the right amount, because you have to be prepared, in war, for unforeseen contingencies.

BLITZER: General Wesley Clark, we'll be getting back to you. Thank you very much for the analysis.

Soldiers posing as civilians and civilians getting caught up in the crossfire.


BLITZER: Today's battles include pictures of the oil field fires in southern Iraq. Firefighters continue their work at the Rumaylah oil field. Officials say they capped one blaze today, leaving only two wells still burning, out of more than 500 oil fields in the area. They say some Iraqis who worked in the field before the war already are asking for their jobs back.

And these pictures show Iraqis running for cover just before U.S. planes dropped a bomb near the village of Kifri, in northern Iraq. Just as they disappear over the ridge, you can hear the planes and the explosions and then you see the cloud.

Ask any American Marine and they'll tell you they'll do anything possible to recover the bodies of fallen comrades. That grim task was carried out by Marines engaged in the fierce battle for the city of Nasiriya. CNN's Alessio Vinci is there with the Marines.


ALESSIO VINCI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Saturday morning, taking some considerable risk because they have to go back into town again. U.S. Marines went back, they are in there, and they found two more shallow graves.

Also two graves that were pointed by Iraqi civilians to the U.S. Marines. And recovered there, what they believe are the remains of at least one, maybe two marines. And U.S. commanders here are now telling us that they believe that almost all of the nine Marines killed in action, their bodies may have been recovered.

The U.S. Marines also conducted house-to-house searches near the sites where the ambush took place, where that armored vehicle was hit. They believe that during the firefight some of the Marines had sought cover inside one of the houses. And, indeed, when they went into those houses today looking for more bodies all what they could find were personal belongings there. The military flack jackets, some chemical suites, some gasmasks, and even some mail that the Marines had written or had received from their families back home.

From here the bodies of he Marines are handed over to the mortuary affairs, who will conduct a DNA test for positive identification and then prepare their bodies for the final journey back home to the United States. Alessio Vinci, CNN, with the U.S. Marines in Nasiriya, Iraq.


BLITZER: And it's still not clear who's responsible for the explosion in Baghdad's Shula neighborhood yesterday. Iraqi officials say more than 50 people were killed by a coalition air strike. U.S. military officials say they don't know if a coalition bomb is to blame. And they speculate openly an Iraqi weapons may very well be responsible.

The United States accuses Iraq of hiding military targets in civilian areas. Either way, the incident left residents angry and traumatized.


UNIDENTIFIED IRAQI CHILD (through translator) We were sitting in the kitchen when the explosion happened. And we fell on the ground and my brother fell. He was hit in his abdomen.


BLITZER: Obviously, a serious development, not clear who is responsible. The Pentagon and the Central Command say they are investigating; the Iraqis, of course, accuse the U.S. of being responsible.


BLITZER: You're looking at live pictures of Baghdad tonight. It has been an intense night of bombing in and around the Iraqi capital. At least 30 explosions have been heard over the past few hours, including in the southern outskirts of Baghdad. That's where U.S. intelligence believes Republican Guard units have been preparing, getting ready for a potential U.S.-led coalition assault on the Iraqi capital.

We're standing by, this is the time of night here in the Persian Gulf when more bombing raids are expected. We'll go back to Baghdad as soon as there's anti-aircraft fire sirens or actual explosions of bombing raids.

Many of the U.S. planes bombing Baghdad, and other cities in Iraq, are flying off the aircraft carrier USS Constellation in the Persian Gulf. CNN's Frank Buckley is on the Constellation, he's joining us now live.

Another busy night, I assume, Frank?


Once again, strike fighters from Air Wing Two are flying into the night skies off of the flight deck of the USS Constellation. And in each one of those strike fighters is a pilot or an air crew that has a family waiting for them and wondering about them back home. Tonight we wanted to introduce you to one such pilot and his family.


BUCKLEY (voice over): The man behind the visor. Flying an F-18 strike fighter is Marine Corps Captain Chris Collins. He's only 28 years old, but he's already a veteran of war.

He just got back from a mission over Iraq. Dust storms made it difficult to see, but he eventually dropped bombs on artillery pieces, maybe on people, Iraqi soldiers.

CAPTAIN CHRIS COLLINS, U.S. MARINE CORPS PILOT: I thought that might affect me, you know, when I first came out here. But they're trying to kill me. They're shooting at me. We're trying to shoot at them. I guess that's what war is all about.

BUCKLEY: It's pretty intense stuff for a guy on his first aircraft carrier deployment. Collins is what they call a "nugget". To his friends he is "Kitty", a call sign his squadron gave him when he showed up with the tough guy call sign "Mad Dog".

To Jack and Barbara Collins, he is a son. Like the parents of so many young men and women in the Gulf, they watch for news about their boy whenever they can. We got word to them so they could watch when we interviewed Chris about the conditions pilots were facing.

COLLINS: When we can't see the ground, obviously, we can't see the target.

BUCKLEY: They stay in touch by e-mail. Occasionally, they talk by phone. Chris knows his mom is worried.

COLLINS: I feel every time she thinks she talks to me it's going to be my last day talking to her, you know, so...

You know, she always wants to know what I'm doing. And then I tell her. And then she gets all worried, so now when she asked me, she's like, what have you been doing? And I'm like, you don't want to know.

BUCKLEY: Chris' parents pray for their boy's safe return.

BARBARA COLLINS, CAPT. COLLINS MOTHER: I'm okay. I think Christopher is highly trained, as are all the pilots. I think he'll be fine.

BUCKLEY: And at the moment, he is. Doing what he was trained to do, to fly and fight.


BUCKLEY: And again, that is the story of Chris Collins. We want to thank his family for letting us intrude into their personal lives there.

Once again, a busy flight deck here on the USS Constellation, during the past 40 hours, in excess of 40 strikes and 40 targets hit or attacked by fighters of the USS Constellation.


BLITZER: Frank Buckley, thanks very much for that report. Frank's aboard that U.S. aircraft carrier here in the Persian Gulf.

Meanwhile, U.S. Navy ships in the Red Sea and the Mediterranean have stopped firing Cruise missiles due to some of the weapons malfunctioning. A Pentagon official says the move was taken after Turkey and Saudi Arabia complained some missiles have fallen on their territory.

The officials said some Cruise missiles have malfunctioned since the start of the war. Four have fallen in remote areas of Saudi Arabia and three into Turkish fields. There have been no reports of injuries or damage. Talks are under way to reopen the flight paths over the skies of those two countries.

Kuwaiti military officials say an allied Patriot missile battery destroyed an incoming Iraqi missile earlier today. It was the 14th Iraqi missile fired at Kuwait since the start of the war.

And 24 hours ago exactly, you might remember if you were watching this program yesterday. A missile hit a shopping mall here in Kuwait City, injuring one person. The mall was closed for the night.

Iraqi television showed pictures of damage from what it says was an unmanned plane that crashed in western Baghdad. Iraq says the plane fell into a building and started a fire. Iraqis say they've downed six drones, unmanned aircraft, since the war began.

The front lines move into the cities the difficult task becomes telling friend from foe. The Marines go house-to-house in southern Iraq.

Plus, oil, firefighters. How could they do their job? And what is the impact that you might be asked to pay at the pump? And a desperate food fight on the front line. The difficult task of winning hearts and minds.

But first more photos from the associated press.


BLITZER: Quiet night here in Kuwait City, so far. Kuwait City last night at this time not so quiet when an Iraqi missile slammed through a shopping mall here in Kuwait City. So far tonight very, very quiet.

Meanwhile, British forces in the southern Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr are going house to house in search of Iraqis who are or might compromise the coalition mission. British pool reporter Bill Neely is in the southern Iraqi town and he has this story.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE) BILL NEELY, CNN CORRESPONDENT: In southern Iraq today, the boots on the other foot. The Royal Marines are now in charge and in pursuit of the old regime. In dawn raids they broke into dozens of houses to hunt for the soldiers, the secret police, the gloves are off here. This is war.

The protests are loud, but the Marines are acting on the tip-off of informers who told them where to find the men, who never hid before. Among those arrested a man the Marines say is an Iraqi army general who, like the rest of his troops discarded his uniform and tried to disappear into the civilian population. The Marines now have a tight grip on Umm Qasr. Further north towards Basra, they have taken the streets of a town of 30,000 people.


NEELY: In Umm Qayal (ph) there is still fight. They put snipers on the rooftops and pick off men with weapons. Inside the car with the white flag an armed Iraqi who took a potshot and paid for it. Here, the population is wary but resistance from Saddam's loyalist is being worn down.

MAJ. ROB MACCOWAN, BRITISH ROYAL MARINES: We've sent in one of our companies of about 100 men in here this morning. And we took about 12 or 13 prisoners, and three or four enemy were injured. And they've now been flown out, and we're treating them, including a man who is almost dead, with a gunshot wound to the chest. We have now evacuated them out. And the enemy, now, have either fled or they have been captured.

NEELY: In buildings and homes the Marines are finding stocks of abandoned weapons. Here, hundreds of rocket propelled grenades. Then it's on to the dusty streets of a town that rebelled against Saddam 12 years ago, a revolt he brutally crushed.

(on camera): Street by street, town by town, in southern Iraq the Marines are imposing their will and their weapons. From now on, here, this will be a guerrilla war, in which the main threat is the sniper and the ambush.

This is Bill Neely with the Royal Marines in Umm Qayal, southern Iraq.


BLITZER: And here's a brief look at where coalition forces stand in Iraq right now. The 101st Airborne, 3rd Infantry, the 1st Marine and British Marines all have made inroads in the south. U.S. Forces control two key air bases in the west.

And in the north the U.S. presence in the Kurdish controlled region has grown dramatically in preparation for opening a northern front. For more on the strategy of both sides in this war, CNN's Chris Plante joins us now live from the Pentagon.


On the front burner at the Pentagon today is dealing with the perception that things are taking too long.


PLANTE (voice over): While coalition forces shore up positions within striking distance of Baghdad, a furious air campaign continues to target Iraq's Republican Guard divisions encircling the city and what Pentagon officials call the command and control apparatus of the regime.

Officials at Central Command dismiss the suggestion that there's a pause in the drive toward Baghdad.

MAJ. GEN. VICTOR RENUART, CENTCOM OPERATIONS DIR.: There is no pause on the battlefield. Because you see a particular formation, not moving on a day, does not mean there is a pause in the battlefield.

PLANTE: Overnight U.S. Army Rangers ripped through an Iraqi commando headquarters in western Iraq taking some 50 prisoners, seizing weapons, ammunition, gas masks and communications equipment.

In southern Iraq, four soldiers manning a checkpoint were killed yesterday in a suicide bombing, the first incident of its kind in this war which has been filled so far with unconventional tactics by unconventional forces.

MAJ. GEN. STANLEY MCCHRYSTAL, JOINT CHIEFS OF STAFF DEPUTY DIR.: It looks and feels like terrorism and what it requires is units to conduct forced production activities which they're prepared and do all the time but clearly when you see a tactic like this, it requires strict adherence or adjustments to your tactics, techniques and procedures to ensure that places like checkpoints are not vulnerable.

PLANTE: Iraqi officials insist there will be more of the same.

The coalition says it is now in control of 40 percent of Iraqi territory and 95 percent of its airspace. Here an F-15 drops a precision guided bomb on a leadership compound in Baghdad.

Troops from the 82nd Airborne are providing additional security along the supply routes leading to Baghdad where convoys have come under constant attack.

At least one report from an embedded reporter on the front line indicates food rations are in short supply. Pentagon officials insist there is no shortage of supplies and say that any suggestion that the U.S. doesn't have enough troops in place is incorrect.


Wolf, another interesting note down in Basra today, two Iraqi soldiers surrendered to U.S. forces there saying that they too had been sent out on a suicide mission but that they didn't want to die for this regime.

Wolf ?

BLITZER: Chris Plante at the Pentagon, thanks very much. This important programming note, tomorrow on late edition I'll have a special interview with the nation's top military officer, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, General Richard Myers. He'll be my guest. That's at noon Eastern, nine a.m. Pacific.

"The Washington Post" is reporting today that CIA paramilitary teams are in Iraq and they're trying to kill members of Saddam Hussein's inner circle. The paper quotes a source as saying several individuals already have been assassinated. This afternoon my colleague Judy Woodruff talked to the Post reporter who told the story.


DANA PRIEST, "THE WASHINGTON POST": Well, we don't know exactly when they began operating in there. I know for certain that it's been about a week. It could be much longer because it was after all over a year ago that the President signed a directive to do just this very thing, to use lethal force against Saddam Hussein. The whole idea has been to kill him before they need to get to Baghdad and short of that, split his inner circle from him.


BLITZER: Priest also noted in her article that U.S. government officials were shown a detailed account of this story and did not ask the Post to withhold any information as they sometimes do with stories of covert operations.

Joining me now from Washington to discuss this report and other issues is Democratic Senator Evan Bayh of Indiana. He serves on both the Intelligence and Armed Services Committees. Senator Bayh thanks so much. What do you make of this "Washington Post" story?

SEN. EVAN BAYH (D), INDIANA: Well Wolf, let's just say I hope it's true. I can't discuss too many of the details but in warfare you're not only allowed to kill the foot soldiers, you're allowed to kill the commanding officers including the commander in chief. I think, as you know, we tried to do that on the very first night of the war unsuccessfully unfortunately but there's not much difference between dropping a bomb on their leadership and killing them or using a bullet or some sort of other mechanism. So we could cut this war much shorter, save a lot of lives if were successful in eliminating Saddam and his top hierarchy and I hope that we're actively involved in doing that.

BLITZER: As far as you know and I know you don't want to release classified information but as far as you know, is this program meeting with certain success?

BAYH: I would suspect that we are Wolf. We've got some very talented people who do those kind of things. It's tough work. They've got to train very thoroughly for it but whether it's the delta force or some other covert operations, the type of individuals, they're very good. It's obviously a hostile environment, very hazardous but I would suspect that when they put their mind to something and we can get the intelligence. That's the key point Wolf. We've got great people but they're only as good as the intelligence we can get them and with some of the modern technology that we have, once we get the information we can get it to them in real time and make it possible for them to act on it much like we tried to do with that bombing on the first night of the campaign.

BLITZER: Senator Bayh, there seems to be some surprises coming up as far as the war is concerned. The extent of the Iraqi opposition especially in the south, a lot of so called experts thought it was going to be relatively easy moving up through Basra and Nasiriya. It hasn't turned out to be the case. Was there an intelligence misconnect or failure here?

BAYH: I'm not sure it's an intelligence failure Wolf. It might be an analytical failure. We had all the information at our disposal but look; a lot of it is because of intimidation. I think you've - you just reported on those two soldiers who were sent on a suicide mission and once they got out said look, we just don't want to die for this regime. I suspect the vast majority of Iraqis feel the same way that with the Fedayeen holding guns to their heads literally in the case of the troops, you know, we're now finding dead Iraqis with bullet holes in the back of their head. With the Fedayeen ever present, both the troops and the civilians are reluctant to rebel because they fear for their safety. That's number one.

Number two, there's still some feeling that we may not be willing to go all the way and actually remove Saddam that there might be a negotiated peace of some kind and so many of them are taking a wait and see attitude and because of that. Finally, there's at least in some quarters an element of nationalism and that is of some concern. There are some Iraqis who feel that while he may be a no good so and so but he's our no good so and so and so it's going to take some humanitarian aid and that kind of thing for us to prove that we're not there as conquerors but instead as liberators.

And the final thing I'd mentioned, remember all those leaflets we dropped in the country? A lot of those leaflets actually cautioned the people, urged the people to stay inside. Stay off the streets. Don't get out where you can be harmed and so you combine all those things together Wolf, I think that's what's going on. It is somewhat surprising. It was perhaps we didn't analyze it correctly and it just goes to show in warfare you never really know until you get in there and see what happens.

BLITZER: The best laid plans are thrown out as soon as the war actually starts. Senator Evan Bayh, always good to speak with you. Thanks very much. I'll see you back in Washington.


BLITZER: Thanks very much Heidi. Protests for the troops and against the war coming up. Police try to keep the two sides from clashing. Also, fighting fire in Iraq's oil fields and what it might mean for you. And relief efforts turn ugly in southern Iraq as aid trucks are mobbed. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Protests around the world as well. An angry group of Turkish villagers pelted a U.S. military convoy with eggs as it drove to inspect the latest U.S. cruise missile to go off course and fall in Turkey. No one has been hurt.

In Seoul, South Korea, about 2,000 anti-war demonstrators chanted stop the bombing, stop the killing. There were some clashes with police but no injuries reported.

Protests by Muslims followed Friday prayers in western India. One sign of the demonstration read George Bush, murderer of humanity. Same story on a larger scale in neighboring Bangladesh with anti-war demonstrations held in several cities including the capital. That one drew 50,000 people while about 500 turned out for a protest in Bogota. The crowd condemned Columbia's president the only Latin American leader to support the war.

A sharp reaction today from Iran regarding accusations made only yesterday by the Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld. Rumsfeld said Iranian backed Shiite opposition militias inside Iraq pose a potential threat to allied troops and this could be a hostile act. Joining us now with Iran's reaction to Secretary Rumsfeld's comments are Iran's ambassador to the United Nations, Javad Zarif.

Mr. Ambassador thank you very much for joining us. Is it true that Iran is supporting this so called Badr corps of Iranian supporters within Iraq to attack U.S. forces?

JAVAD ZARIF, IRANIAN AMBASSADOR TO U.N.: I think you need to look at the situation carefully. First of all, Secretary Rumsfeld knows that the United States has direct contact with the people who have the Badr brigade as their military wing. The Supreme Council of Iraqi Revolution, which is based in Iran, has direct contact with the U.S. and interestingly enough is one of the six groups that was approved by the White House to receive financial assistance. And I believe the U.S. has direct contact with them and if they have concerns they can raise it.

The second point, just as a point of information, because this is an independent group and Iran does not take responsibility for their activity, but as a point of information, they've always been inside Iraq. And the people who are inside Iraq are not limited to members of the Badr brigade. There is a vast amount of opposition inside Iraq. I think if you look at the reasons for Secretary Rumsfeld's statement, it seems that as you have been reporting and some others in non-American media have been reporting more vehemently, the U.S. is running into some trouble inside Iraq. The war plans are not being implemented and they're very optimistic way that they had been drafted and that is why it seems that Secretary Rumsfeld is looking for a scapegoat. That may be ... BLITZER: So you think this is all a smoke screen? He's just looking for an excuse to explain why the U.S. military operation may not be moving as rapidly as once some thought it should.

ZARIF: I mean these are not the reasons but I think they are - there are attempts being made to deflect attention from the problems, from the fact that civilians being killed, from the fact that because of several reasons including the lack of credibility of the United States in the region, the people of Iraq are not fond of their government, are not coming out welcoming American troops and I believe it is important for Secretary Rumsfeld and his colleagues to look at the real reasons behind this and not to try to ...

BLITZER: Let me ask you very briefly, Mr. Ambassador, before I let you go, you had your own way. Saddam Hussein started a war in the '80s against Iran, a brutal war. Who do you hope wins this war, Saddam Hussein or George W. Bush?

ZARIF: We always hope that international legitimacy would win. It is a horrible situation for us that we see that unfortunately because of the U.S. policies, a man with a criminal record such as Saddam Hussein's regime is becoming a hero in our region.

BLITZER: Mr. Ambassador, always good to speak with you. Thanks very much for spending a few minutes with us today here on CNN.

ZARIF: Good talking to you.

BLITZER: We have much more news coming up. We'll have a close look at where things stand on the battlefield. That's up next. Also, fighting oil fires a long way from home. We'll show what it's like to confront the flames. Stay with us.


BLITZER: Nasiriya, Chamchamal and Najaf were among today's Iraqi war hot spots. CNN's Miles O'Brien brings us up to date right now.


MILES O'BRIEN, CNN ANCHOR (voice over): 9:37 a.m. Eastern Time, 5:37 p.m. in the Gulf. CNN's Alessio Vinci reports U.S. Marines in Nasiriya have recovered the bodies of more slain comrades missing since an ambush last week. They also searched house to house for other missing Marines but found only personal belongings.

10:10 a.m., hours after a suspected Iraqi missile injured two people at a Kuwait City shopping mall, air raid sirens sound again in that city. The Kuwaiti government says a U.S. patriot missile intercepted an incoming missile from Iraq.

10:12 a.m., in Chamchamal in northern Iraq, CNN's Kevin Sites reports Iraqis are shelling a position from which they had recently retreated, a position now occupied by Kurdish fighters.

10:19 a.m., CNN's Art Harris reports from the scene of a firefight in Nasiriya as U.S. Marines encounter yet another pocket of resistance in the southern Iraq city.

11:14 a.m., Iraqi's vice president praises the suicide bomber who killed four servicemen from the Army's 3rd Infantry Division early Saturday in Najaf. Taha Ramadan vows there will be more attacks like that one.

1:13 p.m. at the Pentagon, Major General Stanley McChrystal says the suicide bombing will not change U.S. tactics in the war. He says the attack looks and feels like terrorism.


BLITZER: CNN's Miles O'Brien reporting on the latest developments and here's a late development. Right now in fact tracer fire, Iraqi anti-aircraft fire going up in the skies over Baghdad. Very often that's a signal, that's an indication U.S. warplanes might be on the way. We're getting reports initially right now more explosions just south of Baghdad. We're watching what's happening in Baghdad. Al Jazeera reporting now another huge explosion just south of Baghdad, the southern outskirts of the Iraqi capital. We're watching these developments. We'll bring you more as soon as we get it but once again, explosions, tracer fire unfolding right now over Baghdad.

Further to the south, coalition firefighters capped another burning well in Iraqi's Rumaylah oil field earlier today leaving only two wells still burning. CNN's Richard Blystone reports on what it's like to battle the blazes and what happens next.


RICHARD BLYSTONE, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over: Don't try this at home. Kuwaiti firefighters prepare for a second assault on this and it's hot enough to melt your teeth. Twenty thousand barrels of top grade oil a day roaring into the atmosphere. The next to last well fire left in Iraq's vast Rumaylah oil field. Over here the red suited protects us from "Boots & Coots" are about to finish off a well they extinguished a couple of hours before.

LARRY FLAK, BOOTS & COOTS FIREFIGHTER: They call us firefighters but really we're oil stoppers. We have to get the genie back in the bottle.

BLYSTONE: But that too will be only a start. After three wars, international sanctions and a generation of neglect, this oil field like much else in Iraq is in sad shape.

BRIG. GEN. ROBERT CREAR, U.S. ARMY ENGINEERS: It is rusted. There's lack of maintenance of any sorts. I was very surprised that they were even working.

BLYSTONE: First, there are mines, booby traps and ammunitions to deal with to clear Rumaylah's 1100 wells. Then restoring and upgrading will be a long multi-billion dollar job but assuming the coalition reaches its goals however long it takes; Iraqi oil will likely transform the world economy and yours. Here's why. This well is just a little squirt. Iraq has more than three times as much oil as the United States and peacetime exploration may make that 10 times as much, maybe more than the oil emperor, Saudi Arabia. It's light and sweet and it wants to leap out of the ground. One barrel costs only $5 to produce, a third or less of what it costs many other countries. Would you like to invest here we asked the man in charge.

CREAR: Yeah. If I had to invest, I would certainly be investing in this country and as a matter of fact, I think in a way I am.

BLYSTONE: Right now oil sells for around $30 a barrel. Whenever the day comes, Iraq will be able to sell it for $20 or less and still make a tidy profit. Twenty dollars a barrel oil could knock 20 percent off the cost of gasoline. Recession could be slowly put in its place.

(on camera): Whether you're for the war or against it, whether the fighting goes smoothly or not, one day the oil fields of Iraq are going to make a difference in how much you pay to fill up your car.

Richard Blystone, CNN Rumaylah oil fields, southern Iraq.


BLITZER: And winning the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people seen as Christiane Amanpour will take you to one desperate Iraqi town to find out if the allies are viewed as liberators or invaders. Stay with us.


BLITZER: As we just saw, the battle for the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is proving to be as difficult in many cases as the battle against the Iraqi army. CNN's Christiane Amanpour explains why from the southern city of Umm Qasr.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice over): Umm Qasr is a dilapidated little town. At the marketplace there's not much more than tomatoes, onions and a lot of flies and opinions. Saddam Hussein is our president, says this woman. We love him but we're scared of him. In fact, Ali (ph), an anti-Saddam exile returning home with the U.S. Army, says these women don't dare speak out against Saddam Hussein just yet.

(on camera): These people don't believe that the Americans can or will get rid of Saddam Hussein.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes. We've been hearing that everyday that we've been here and part of our job and our free Iraqi forces are helping us to convince the people that we will stay until Saddam is gone.

AMANPOUR (voice over): As part of army civil affairs, Colonel David Blacklege (ph) and his team interact with the people.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nice to meet you. How old are you? AMANPOUR: They're trying to gain valuable information and their trust but it's a hard sell. This is Iraqi's Shiite heartland and memories are deep and bitter. They'll not easily forget what they consider America's great betrayal during the Gulf War 12 years ago. People gather around U.S. soldiers and they tell us they are looking forward to a new Iraq, one without fear of Saddam's reign of terror.

I want my freedom, says this man. I don't want food or water. I just want my freedom.

A sign of the danger still lurking here, these two men who flagged down the American Humvee and asked to surrender. We can't show their faces because they've been taken as prisoners of war, but they say they are Saddam's Fedayeen militias sent down from Baghdad on pain of execution. Their mission to conduct suicide attacks against American and British troops. They're giving themselves up to these Americans. They said they didn't want to die for Saddam Hussein.

(on camera): Removing the image and the influence of Saddam Hussein is a main objective for the Americans and the British in this part of Iraq and they hope by first stabilizing Umm Qasr, word will then spread northwards and have an effect on Basra and beyond.

(voice over): In fact, the British sent 11 of these Challenger tanks into Basra to crush Saddam's statue in the center. Meantime, a steady stream of civilians continues to leave. It's a portrait of war with thick black smoke billowing from the city they leave behind. Some are surrendering to the British forces and some of the men want to go back after bringing out their families. And to the question the British ask every day, when will the people rise up? The answer many give us, the day they know Saddam is dead.

Christiane Amanpour, CNN near Basra in southern Iraq.


BLITZER: And up next relief efforts turn ugly in southern Iraq. This shocking picture, that's next. Stay with us.


BLITZER: The allied effort to win the hearts and minds of the Iraqi people is producing mixed results. An example is this southern Iraq town of Safwan. Chaos erupted today when an aid convoy with food and water arrived. The town has been without water and little food since the start of the war. Allied officials hoped the supplies would show residents they're being liberated not invaded. At least some residents aren't buying that line.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We hate U.S. We had British, England. We hate any state in war here.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: What do you think about Saddam's regime?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saddam's very good man.


BLITZER: Some residents tell Western reporters they're afraid to speak out against Saddam Hussein for fear of reprisals.

Please stay with CNN throughout the night for up to the minute war coverage. I'll be back in one hour for two hours of special coverage with Aaron Brown. Until then thanks very much for watching. I'm Wolf Blitzer in Kuwait City.

Up next to pick up our coverage, Lou Dobbs.


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