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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

War in Iraq: Marines Go House-To-House in Nasiriya

Aired March 29, 2003 - 23:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

AARON BROWN, CNN ANCHOR: Thanks, Stephen. And it continues with correspondent Art Harris. Art has been embedded with the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines. They have been involved in this fight, this battle in Nasiriya.
Art, is the battle over?

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Aaron, the battle is ongoing. For the moment, there's a lull. It's quiet. A lot of heavy artillery overnight, Howitzers, Cobras came in.

But I'm standing, right now, in the command post of the 3rd Battalion 2nd Marines. I just talked to Lieutenant Colonel Paul Donahoe (ph), who said yesterday was a very good day for the battalion. We (UNINTELLIGIBLE) with weapons, and they have been going house-to-house.

They have been taking out all sorts of enemy command posts, Aaron. It started several days ago when they came upon the Ba'ath Party headquarters in town. They found terrain models, overlays, map symbols and various sensitive record books.

They called the military intelligence, analyzed it, and came up with other sites in the city which were then targeted and bombed with precision-guided munitions.

Some were so close to Marine positions that they, you know, they were - they were not concerned, though, because of the new munitions. The high-tech bombs that they're using allow them to do that.

They took out those headquarters. They moved on for other targets of opportunity. They have told me that they have taken not only this headquarters where they found more than 10,000 rounds of machine guns - bullets they found, hundreds of mortar rounds, artillery, chemical suits.

And nearby, they have found warehouses of food, Aaron, macaroni, spaghetti, rice, and they are about to distribute that to the local people.

They were also taking fire late yesterday from a nearby mosque across the river. That was confirmed by Marines on the ground and in the air. And they targeted that. They fired back. They took out machine guns there and reported secondary explosions, which I can see from across the river, smoke billowing hundreds of feet into the air and then burning afterwards, which they tell me is an indication of munitions. There was an apartment building nearby and another one adjacent to that. Those were taken out. I was watching a fire in one of the buildings that an RPG - an Iraqi with an RPG apparently used it to fire on our convoy. And there was a very long minute or two that we had to stay exposed in the open before the convoy moved on.

The Marines here saying that it's taking them a little longer to clear the town than they had anticipated, but they are not at all upset about that, Aaron. They say they're fighting paramilitary. They don't want anybody to get behind them. And they will methodically go house-to-house, door-to-door until they achieve their objective - Aaron.

BROWN: Describe, as best you can - I'm not sure how close you've been to this town or the city - what we're talking about here. Are we talking about a very small town? Are we talking about hundreds of houses? What - give me the best visual sense of it you can.

HARRIS: Aaron, it's a sprawling town or small city, one is a tourist town. This dates back to Biblical times of - Abraham was supposed to have been born in the area 6,000 years ago. There's a very fine museum here. So it once attracted tourists.

And it's a very large city that runs along the Euphrates. I would say it's at least four square miles. And the area that I traveled along yesterday was about six miles from across the river, back across Ambush Alley and the bridges, and then down along the Euphrates.

And some very nice homes along here, Aaron, that are believed to have belong to Ba'ath Party officials who drive very nice cars.

So it is a - in better times, it could be described as a lovely, bucolic city on the Euphrates, that is now torn from the fighting. But a lot of, in the interior, mortar - I mean low, dark brown houses, one-story, that are back beneath palm trees.

And they have a large factory nearby. I know this because when we walked in, when we drove in - I don't know what that involves.

But the river - the riverfront of these nice villages now occupied by Marines, who have dug out fighting holes...

BROWN: Yes.

HARRIS: ... and all along the river - Aaron.

BROWN: Art, one or two other things. Is it - do you know, is it the plan of the Marines to take the city and hold the city, occupy the city? And if not, what's to prevent the Iraqis from coming back after the Marines leave?

HARRIS: I think they will leave at least a blocking force, Aaron. They do not have - they explained to me this morning, want anybody coming up behind them. And since they are fighting paramilitary, guys who are wearing civilian clothes with AK-47s and using human shields, they're going to be very careful how they move forward. And that is their job, to provide a blocking force and a screen for any logistics convoys that come up later on the way from the south to Baghdad.

But they are going to hold on to the city, my understanding is. And they're moving forward elements to the area to help them do that, as well. But right now, methodically trying to secure along the banks of the Euphrates.

They have the southern bank, where I am right now, and they were taking fire from the other side. And also, they found out something different from the rooftops of different buildings, where the Iraqis have set up mortar positions, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) behind sandbags - Aaron.

BROWN: Art, nice job of reporting. Thank you - Art Harris with 2nd Marine Division in Nasiriya.

General, 30 seconds, put a little more on that for me. What does it sound like to you that they're trying to do here?

GEN. WESLEY CLARK, FMR. NATO ALLIED SUPREME CMDR., CNN MILITARY ANALYST: It sounds, to me, like they're clearing the zone to protect the convoy route. They may go back two or three blocks into the city so they've got a secured area.

And the question is, have they really taken out the enemy's infrastructure in the area? Have they identified the commanders, gone after the command post in a way that the enemy is not free to maneuver back the next day or the day after that?

Because it takes a sizable force to hold two miles of built-up area on either side of a city. I mean, that's a couple of - that's a regiment, if you're going to fight house-to-house and hold it.

BROWN: Just to make sure I understand this. What you want to do, first and foremost, is protect the supply line.

CLARK: Right. They were getting fire that was directly coming down on the movement.

BROWN: Right.

CLARK: So you clear outward from that area. The question is, how far out? How durable is your action? Can you just stay there? Do you continue to work it? Do you make a deal with the political leaders? Do you think the enemy was just there for that purpose or is he going to fall back deeper in the city and you're going to have to pursue him in there. That's probably not decided yet.

BROWN: Got it. During a lull in the battle there, coalition forces came upon a number of chilling discoveries at a local hospital. First of all, the hospital wasn't really a hospital, at least not any more. The Iraqis had turned it into an army outpost.

Second, they found bloody U.S. battle fatigues that may have been worn by members of the 507th Maintenance Unit who were captured in that area last Sunday. Five had been taken prisoner.

They also found some sort of torture device that was discovered, a cot attached to a car battery. And there was more.

Here's pool reporter, James Mates.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

JAMES MATES, POOL REPORTER, ITB NEWS (voice-over): In more peaceful times, this was a hospital. So with its strategic position at the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Nasiriya, it had been taken over by the Iraqi army.

A tank was parked in the grounds. Military equipment and posters lined the corridors. That was evidence that it had become a local command center.

But now in the hands of U.S. Marines, the most disturbing discovery was that troops here had been issued with the means to fight a chemical or biological war. In one storeroom alone, enough protective gear to equipment many hundreds of troops.

(on camera): This is clearly the central storeroom for their chemical and biological warfare equipment: carrying bags here with gas masks. The masks from these boxes have already been issued. Around here, the over-boots that go with chemical and biological protection suits.

And in this box, canisters attached to gas masks, these ones absolutely brand new and ready for issue. Also here, the auto injecting antidote to nerve agents, which appear to have also been issued to their troops.

There is little doubt, from looking in this room, that the troops who were operating from this command center were, at the very least, prepared to be fighting in a chemical or biological environment.

(voice-over): And for the Marines here, at least, that leads to only one conclusion.

WARRANT OFFICER GARY ALLEN, U.S. MARINES: We do not use biological or chemical warfare. The fact that they have it here, in a hospital, and ready to pass out, who knows, you know.

MATES: Does it worry you?

ALLEN: A little bit because they're a little bit better equipped than what I thought they were going to be.

MATES: Better prepared than they thought they were going to be. That is something that will worry commanders right across this battlefield - James Mates, ITB News, Nasiriya.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: British Marines have borne the brunt of occupying, pacifying the southern part of Iraq. Pacifying, in this case, sounds a lot like more peaceful than it actually is, as you'll see in this report by correspondent Bill Neely.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

BILL NEELY, BRITISH POOL JOURNALIST (voice-over): In southern Iraq today, the boot's 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've 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 toward Basra, they've taken the streets of a town of 30,000. In Umm Qayal (ph), there's still a fight. They put snipers on the rooftops and pick off men with weapons. Inside the car with a white flag, an armed Iraqi who took a pot shot and paid for it.

Here, the population is wary, but resistance from Saddam's loyalists is being warned on.

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

We've now evacuated them out. And the enemy, now, have either fled or they've 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.

(voice-over): This is Bill Neely with the Royal Marines in Umm Qayal, southern Iraq.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: We'll take a break. When we come back, there was a - Pentagon briefings, in truth, don't make a lot of news. And the briefing itself today did not make a lot of news, but something that happened in the briefing today, I think is going to turn into a much talked about, much written about event with some ramifications. And we'll stop teasing you and tell you more about that after this short break. Our coverage continues in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

BROWN: Now I'll see if I can sort out this mess I made. Pentagon briefings tend to run to type, same language, more or less, same images, more or less. It was not that way today.

The Department of Defense, today, launched its own salvo in what's become a battle of images. It answered the pictures of dying civilians in Iraq with pictures of Saddam Hussein's victims over the years, strong stuff.

And we've long been fascinated by the endlessly different ways the war is being shown around the world, how it's being perceived. Today, some news organizations carried most of the briefings, others very little of it.

Tonight, we want to show you how it played out in the briefing room, and we'll talk about its significance after that.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

VICTORIA CLARKE, PENTAGON SPOKESWOMAN: People seem to have been surprised at the brutality, at what the Iraqi regime is doing to some of their people. And on the one hand, it is hard to - it's hard to understand that. It has been so well documented. It has been so well reported for years what the regime has done to its own people.

And we're going to show you a couple of clips here. The first one is an Iraqi woman whose name is Zanab Alsuwazh (ph), whose teenage cousin was tortured by the regime. And following that is a small clip from a BBC program about the chemical weapon attack on the town of Halabja - Tim.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I have 16-year-old cousin. She was in high school. And one day she wrote in her note that - something against the government, that I don't like for them. So the teacher saw what she was - wrote, and so the police came and they took her to prison with her mother, father, uncles, sisters and brother, cousin and her aunt.

One day, they took all of my clothes off and they threatened my parents that they are going to rape me. This torture lasted for 11 months.

And after that, they sentenced me to be in jail for three years.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Halabja was bombed with a cocktail of mustard gas and the nerve agents, Tabun and Sarin. On that date, up to 5,000 people were gassed, and this was not a one of (ph).

Forty other villages across northern Iraq were poisoned. Cancer and birth defects have shot up since the war crimes, and every home contains its own horror story.

CLARKE: So it is hard to imagine that people don't know, as I said, about the brutality of this regime.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

BROWN: OK. That's just, in brief, what went on. Now, the significance here is that reporters and television networks, American and worldwide, come to these briefings to get the news. And there was a feeling in the briefing room, and certainly in the management hallways in a lot of news organizations, that they were used, essentially, for purposes that were inappropriate in a news briefing.

That's the controversy.

We're joined, from New York, by Pulitzer Prize-winning military analyst, Fred Kaplan, who currently write for Slate.com.

And it's good to see you. Thank you.

FRED KAPLAN, COLUMNIST, SLATE.COM: Thank you.

BROWN: Listen, let me argue the point from the - let me argue the Pentagon's point here. We're getting - the Iraqis have no problem using full-blown information minister propaganda, and we're getting hammered in the international community. And we might as well do the same thing. Two can play the same game, and we're going to do it. That's their argument.

KAPLAN: Well, you know, I think there's something to that. But I'm - frankly, I'm a bit stunned. If this is the best we can do, we're not doing very well. I mean, I don't think anybody in the world doubts that Saddam Hussein has been running a brutal regime.

I think maybe we need to spend a little more time on not so much proving that he's a bad guy, but that we're good guys.

Some of that footage was taken from the '80s, when I'm sure somebody will point out, the United States was sort of allied with Iraq in its war with Iran. And U.S. government officials knew what Iraq was doing with chemical weapons and didn't seem to be making much of a fuss about it at the time.

Also, you know, if you're going to have this kind of footage being shown, say, to the Arab world, I don't know what good it does, at this point, to be putting a Defense Department (UNINTELLIGIBLE) on it. I don't think that's the best thing that can be done for its credibility.

So I find it very puzzling. I find - you know, Victoria Clarke said at the beginning of it that she finds it hard to believe that anybody thinks that Saddam Hussein isn't running a brutal regime. I don't think anybody disbelieves that.

What I find hard to believe is that the Pentagon, in doing its war games and its war plannings, did not take into account the possibility that Iraqi soldiers would be using guerrilla style tactics, as people did in Vietnam, as Palestinians have done in Israel.

BROWN: Well, there's been - Fred, there's been reporting over the last few days that, in fact, they were told that that would happen. It's not a question that they weren't told it would happen, so the reporting goes; it's a question of how much credibility they gave to that.

KAPLAN: Well, it's an interesting thing, when the general, who is the head of the Army forces in the Persian Gulf, said, the enemy isn't behaving according to the way that we war-gamed this.

In fact, there was a war game last summer. It lasted for three weeks in July and August. It was in the works for two years. And the general - there was a man running what they called "Red Force," which was the force simulating Iraq. It was a retired three-star Marine general who had played "Red Force" in many war-games.

And he started doing interesting things. He started running suicide bombers against the fleet. He started, you know, using motorcycles to convey communications so that the command control network of red, which was simulating Saddam Hussein, couldn't be intercepted by U.S. high-tech. And the people managing the war-game ruled all of these moves out of order. They said, no that's not going to happen. We disqualify that move. We're not going to carry that out in the game.

He quit the war-game as a result because this war-game was testing the kinds of concepts that the U.S. is using in this war, and he didn't want to be a part of any game that would validate a concept that hadn't really been tested.

So, in fact, the man who was running the pseudo-Iraqi army in the game tried to use the kinds of tactics that we see Saddam Hussein using now.

BROWN: Yes.

KAPLAN: But we didn't test our own forces against it. They were ruled, you know, too incredible or disqualified for one reason or another.

BROWN: Let me throw one more thing on the table here. And "The Washington Post," in a story that will be in the Sunday paper, will say that top Army officers in Iraq say they now believe they have to effectively re-start the war and that it may last, now, well into the summer.

KAPLAN: You know, the thing that I find disturbing - I mean you can say, well, look, the war has only been going on for 10 days, and it's too early to make any judgments. But the war plan that went into this - and I haven't seen the war plan. However, I have read the doctrines on which the war plan is based, and I've seen what we tried to do in the first days. It envisioned - the reason why the troops dashed up to Baghdad first thing, almost simultaneously as the bombs fell, bypassing all the other cities along the way - the idea was that, by the time the troops got to outside of Baghdad, the air strikes, very precise, very accurate, would have so teetered the regime that all we would have to do is kind of give it a little shove and it would fall right over.

Well, you know, if it had worked, we'd all be, you know, congratulating this plan as the most brilliant things of all time. It didn't work, and yet, we had no backup. That's the reason why our supply lines are now coming into attack from the rear. People are wondering, well, why didn't you stop and take Basra. We have to go back and take Basra.

BROWN: Yes.

KAPLAN: We have to go back and take Nasiriya. The plan did not work. It was supposed to be a war, not even merely of weeks, but of days.

BROWN: Fred...

KAPLAN: Yes.

BROWN: I'm sorry. Let me just stop you there. Gen. Clark's sitting at my shoulder, and I want to get him in.

Just - you've listened to these conversations. Agree, disagree, whatever.

CLARKE: Well, you know, I think...

BROWN: Or ask -- however you want to do it.

CLARK: I think the key thing here is that it's true. The administration operated on a set of assumptions, and the assumptions didn't quite work out with respect to the Iraqi degree of resistance. And that's what is at issue here.

Should we have expected that degree of resistance? Should we have planned for that degree of resistance? Normally in the military, you do conservative, sort of moderate worst-case planning. You can always create an enemy situation in which you can't possibly succeed...

BROWN: Right.

CLARK: ... every child is carrying a bomb and all that sort of thing. So we're not going to do that. But this seems to have been a plan which was based - and we haven't seen the plan.

BROWN: Right.

CLARK: But it seems to have been based on moderately best-case assumptions. That is to say the level of Iraqi resistance would be low. They would be concentrated in Baghdad and the air campaign would work.

BROWN: Right. We need to break here. Fred, thank you. You put a lot of things on our table tonight. I hope you'll come back, as well. Thank you very much. Fred Kaplan writes for Slate.com.

We take a break. We'll update the headlines and much more ahead, on a Saturday night, in a moment.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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