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Iraq War Moves Forward

Aired March 31, 2003 - 19:00   ET


SOPHIA CHOI, CNN ANCHOR: I'm Sophia Choi in the CNN newsroom, and here's the latest at this hour.
Baghdad is burning. In just the last hour, new explosions have been heard in the Iraqi capital. And CNN has learned that the U.S. is stepping up its air strikes against Republican Guard divisions ringing the city.

Pentagon sources say U.S. war planes flew almost 500 attack sorties against the Medina, Hammurabai, and Baghdad Divisions of the Republican Guard.

The Pentagon's top general told CNN today that a terror camp in northeastern Iraq probably was the source of a poison found in a London apartment. General Richard Myers said U.S. troops are searching an Ansar al-Islam compound, and that Ansar al-Islam and al Qaeda had been working on poisons there.

In January, London police found traces of the poison ricin in a raid. European intelligence sources have told CNN they believe it actually originated in London and the former Soviet republic of Georgia. Iraq has not accounted for about three gallons of ricin, but the Ansar al-Islam camp was in a region not controlled by Saddam Hussein.

The Palestinian militant group Islamic Jihad said today it has sent its first, quote, "kamikaze brigade" to Baghdad to help fight the U.S. and U.K. And the group called today's suicide bombing in Israel, quote, "a gift to the Iraqi people." It was the first such attack in three weeks and wounded at least 49 people at an outdoor cafe in Netanya.

On the home front, the FBI confirms that new security measures will be implemented at some of the nation's biggest airports. New patrols and limits on public access are intended to protect against attack by shoulder-launched missiles. There is no evidence of such a threat, but federal officials say they're not waiting until there is one, given the attempt in November to shoot down an Israeli plane in Kenya.

And those are the headlines at this hour. War in Iraq, live from the front lines, begins right now.

ANNOUNCER: A Marine helicopter goes down in southern Iraq. A deadly crash.

And the air war continues. Sending messages to Baghdad, and sending messages to the American public.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: The toughest part of this is ahead of us.

DONALD RUMSFELD, SECRETARY OF DEFENSE: It's going to get more difficult as we move closer to Baghdad.

ANNOUNCER: But the questions remain. Is the war plan right?

RUMSFELD: It's been described as an excellent plan. I'd be delighted to take credit for it, but it wouldn't be fair.

ANNOUNCER: Has the coalition lost momentum?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We have not been in an operational (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

ANNOUNCER: Will Iraq's suicide tactics work?

GEN. TOMMY FRANKS, COMMANDER, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: That attack was just endorsed by those in power in Baghdad. Remarkable.

ANNOUNCER: Live from Baghdad, Kuwait City, Washington, northern Iraq, and cities around the globe, war in Iraq, live from the front lines.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening. It is just after 7:00 p.m. here on the East Coast of the United States, just after 3:00 a.m. in Baghdad. You are looking at a live picture, 3:02 a.m.

And in Baghdad the bombing has become relentless. Explosions punctuate the night, fires glow on the skyline. Smoke still hangs in the air. And coalition ground forces are 60 miles away.

Good evening from the CNN Center in Atlanta. I'm Anderson Cooper. My colleague Wolf Blitzer is in Kuwait City -- Wolf.

WOLF BLITZER, CNN ANCHOR: Good evening, Anderson.

A member of the International Committee of the Red Cross says bombs hit in and around Baghdad almost continuously today.

And the Joint Chiefs chairman, General Richard Myers, told me more than half of the coalition's average of 1,000 air sorties a day are now directed against Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard units defending the city.

For more on what's being hit, let's go to CNN's senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson. He's on the border between Jordan and Iraq right now.

It's been a busy hour, the last hour, Nic. What was hit?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN SENIOR INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: (audio interrupt) certainly see where it was hit. On the righthand side of the screen is the ministry of information, and a banner across the bottom of the screen there, the 28th of April Shopping Center.

That is on the 28th of April Street, named after President Saddam Hussein's birthday, very, very close to the ministry of information. The fire burning very close to some apartment buildings, a residential area that was hit last night, as well, very much the same area.

That area, an area for retired military officers, an area for Ba'ath Party officials, an area for other professionals, pretty much a government-type area for people to live in and other people to retire. Pretty much also empty. It's an area that people have been moving out of before the war.

But that area the target tonight. The fire burning very, very close to the ministry of information, but impossible to see exactly what was hit.

We've heard today, just through the night, from Iraq's minister for health, criticizing coalition forces, saying they were targeting women and children, targeting civilians, but saying even when the bombing has been heavy, the hospitals having difficulty coping with the flow of injured.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE (through translator): Well, thank God that the Iraqi medical staff have experience. But when the bombardment on an area, a civilian area, as the popular market in Baghdad -- actually, they hit two markets, one in the popular area and other one in the Shalair (ph) Market, there are -- there were many injured, in the hundreds, that arrived in the hospitals. We could not provide services to all of them at the same time.


ROBERTSON: Now, we've heard as well today from members of the International Committee for the Red Cross. They say that they believe the figures that hospital officials are giving in Baghdad, they say perhaps as many as 100 casualties arriving each day. From what they've been able to see, they say men, women, and children. They say military casualties have been taken to other hospitals elsewhere where they're not able to visit.

But what they can determine from their visits to the hospital, they do confirm that they are seeing many civilian casualties, Anderson.

COOPER: Nic, thanks very much.

As we told you earlier, the coalition has been averaging about 1,000 air sorties daily since the war in Iraq began. CNN's Bob Franken is at a coalition air base near the Iraqi border, and he joins us live.

Bob, thanks for being with us. How many air strikes, do we know, were there in the last 24 hours or so, and what are the main targets at this point? BOB FRANKEN, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, you know, it's interesting, about 1,800. It is up quite a bit. And we're having a nice lull here, which is fine, because of the ear-shattering sound as the jets take off, which they've been just about constantly doing.

As a matter of fact, we're seeing one now that is coming in after returning from his run. And we have another one that's just about to take off. So our little calm is about to be interrupted.

But in any case, in the entire air war, not just at this base, which is a major one, but in the entire air war, they're now up to 1,800. And about 800 of those are the actual bombing runs, the actual combat runs, those kinds of things, about half of those, more than half of those, are directed at the Republican Guard, which is hardly a surprise.

The Republican Guard has always been considered where the ultimate fight was going to be conducted. Everything else was compared, considered to be somewhat ragtag, although many of the other units have put up a fight too.

In any case, the war is intensifying. The air war is intensifying. It's being supplemented by the auxiliary air base that was set up to the north of us in Iraq. We returned from that just today. And that one is becoming an important way station for planes that are in the area.

But this seems to be the absolute opposite of Gulf War One, where it started with such a huge air campaign at the beginning, and then the air campaign deferred somewhat to the ground war.

In this particular case, it seems to be working the other way around. And, of course, the ground troops are getting closer to Baghdad, Wolf.

BLITZER: Bob Franken at an air base along the border not far from Iraq. Thanks very much, Bob Franken, here in the Persian Gulf.

Let's quickly update some of the main battles in Iraq right now.

U.S. bombers are trying to dislodge Iraqi forces defending Kalak and Mosul, cities in Iraq's northern oil-producing region. Massive air strikes targeted a ridge just above Kalak. It overlooks a main highway. And forces loyal to Saddam Hussein are in hiding in trenches there armed with heavy mortars and antiaircraft guns.

In central Iraq, U.S. Marines are involved in a drawn-out battle around Nasiriyah on the Euphrates River. Sunday, the Marines captured a building thought to be the headquarters of Iraq's 11th Infantry Division.

Also in Nasiriyah, the Marines have discovered more abandoned chemical suits, masks, and nerve gas antidote.

The southern city of Basra remains the scene of intense fighting between British forces and Iraqi militia fighters. The British say their Marines killed an Iraqi colonel. However, they're now withdrawing their earlier claim that an Iraqi general had been captured.

Here's CNN's Christiane Amanpour now with details on the struggle for Basra.


CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CORRESPONDENT: There's been a lot of activity around Basra, and there is almost daily and, in fact, nightly night videoscope that you're going to be looking at shortly. That is what we see here, and that is what we're being told about at all our daily briefings.

Today, though, there was a major offensive, according to the British military spokesman. The commandos of the British Royal Marines went up towards the southeast of Basra to take on some infantry and tanks that had come out of the southeast of Basra in an offensive position, we were told.

And so the commandos went up there to counterattack. And we're told that they have now secured that area, little place just southeast of Basra, and that they have captured, we're told, 200 prisoners from there.

And those are now being transferred to the British-held prisoner of war camp, which is down near Umm Qasr, bringing the total to about 3,000-plus prisoners of war under British control from southern Iraq.

We also understand that the British did, they say, capture at least five senior, they say, senior Iraqi army officers, including a general, and killed a Republican Guard colonel. This all according to a British military spokesman here.

In addition, though, (UNINTELLIGIBLE) from a military cameraman who was up towards the Basra area, a situation where civilians were caught in the sort of crossfire, in a firefight. What's happening is, because Basra is, in fact, not totally under siege, people are coming out. And they're coming out fairly regularly.

And sometimes they are caught up in these firefights as these Iraqi positions, in this case five against a British checkpoint in the area, and the British returned fire. We do not have any word on any casualties in that incident.

The British, meanwhile, continuing to step up their psychological warfare operations as well, particularly in and around Basra. They have been taking their army bulldozers, and in some cases tanks, to try to smash the images of Saddam Hussein that are larger than life and that are all over Iraq, hoping that this will symbolically weaken his political hold on the population.

They also took out with the tanks the TV antenna tower in Basra to try to cut the voice of Baghdad to the people of Basra.

So that's what's going on. Still a lot of duels between the Iraqis inside Basra, the army and the irregular forces and the British, on the outside to the west.


COOPER: And the battle for Basra is one we will be following a lot in the coming hours as our coverage continues.

A U.S. Marine helicopter crashed today in southern Iraq, killing three people and injuring one. The Associated Press reports the Marine UH-1 Huey went down at a forward supply and refueling point in southern Iraq. A Pentagon spokesman says the crash appears to be accidental, not the result of hostile fire.

The U.S. war strategy continues to draw heat from critics questioning the wisdom of the military plan. Today Donald Rumsfeld fired back, dismissing what he called "hyperventilating critics."


RUMSFELD: I think it's important to remind ourselves that what the world is seeing is 24 hours a day, 7 days a week television news on this subject. It's been going on nine days. It's a little early for postmortems. It's a little early to write history.


COOPER: "A little early to write history," he said, given the fact the war is a little over a week old.

Is it too early to judge, or is the course of criticism justified? Let's pose that question to CNN military analyst retired Brigadier General David Grange. He served in the U.S. Army for 30 years and conducted assignments during the last Gulf War.

What do you think, General Grange? Too early to start armchair quarterbacking?

BRIG. GEN. DAVID GRANGE (RET.), U.S. ARMY: Way too early. There's a lot of time down the road yet. Every day is a day in history, obviously. But it's -- to look back and analyze where they are on the battlefield and how it's going, it's way too early.

COOPER: It does seem to be, though, more than just pundits. I mean, "New Yorker" tomorrow has an article by Sy Hersh, who's quoting a lot of people inside the Pentagon who are raising some criticisms of the plan. And we're hearing a lot from our embedded reporters in the field, from troops in the field, Marines in the field, who are saying things are different than what they expected.

So is there a disconnect between what CentCom is telling us and what the troops in the field are experiencing?

GRANGE: I don't think so, Anderson. What happens -- it's a perception issue. For instance, if you went to war and spent a year in war, let's say you served in Vietnam for one year, or two or three years, whatever, but let's just say one year, that sustained combat, day in and day out, for entire year, well, you may get a seven-day leave period, what they call an R&R, a leave time, but it's sustained combat.

And this is nine days. And so since Vietnam, there really hasn't been fighting that lasted on the ground a long period of time. So the perception is that countries like the United States or Great Britain can go in, Great Britain in the Falklands as an example, United States in, for instance, in Afghanistan, and get something done very quickly.

And it's not going to be that way. It's going to take longer when you have armies this size, resistance rather tough in certain places. It's going to take some time to finish the war.

COOPER: General, lot of the generals have always been discussing the flexibility of this plan. Just from your vantage point, does the plan seem flexible and flexible enough to accommodate a lot of the types of counterattacks we've been seeing in the last couple of days?

GRANGE: There's something in the military called the current operational environment. And what that means is the battlefield changes almost on a daily basis. It's a certain -- it -- the battlefield appears the way it's going to be when you get ready to kick off. And then as soon as you start, there's changes that affect that plan.

And they're -- some of the changes are factors you can't change. You can't affect them. You have to live with them, adapt to them.

And so the current operational environment changes on a daily basis, from a lot of influences around that environment, and you have to be flexible if you plan to win. And flexibility is a quality, I know for sure, in the American Army, and having trained with the British, in their army as well.

COOPER: All right. General Grange, appreciate you joining us.

Let's go back to Wolf in Kuwait City.

BLITZER: Thank you very much, Anderson. Thanks, General Grange, as well.

Coming up, after years of training for the real thing, an Apache helicopter pilot talks about facing his first firefight. Live from the front lines, we'll continue in just a moment.


BLITZER: It's back to business from the White House. President Bush wrapped up his weekend visit at Camp David, headed back to Washington earlier today He spent the past two weekends tracking war developments from the presidential retreat at Camp David, Maryland, officials say.

The president also took some time out for a little bit of exercise.

Iraq, meanwhile, still has not let the International Committee of the Red Cross visit American prisoners of war. Earlier on CNN's "LATE EDITION," Joint Chiefs Chairman General Richard Myers called on Iraq to, quote, "Do the honorable and right thing and allow such visits." Myers says the U.S. has given the Red Cross permission to see Iraqi POWs.

And at least five U.S. soldiers were taken prisoner after an ambush near Nasiriyah last week. Iraq also has said it's holding two crewmen from an Apache helicopter which went down during a mission, also last week.

The Pentagon says coalition forces are holding more than 4,000 Iraqi POWs.

Apache helicopter pilots often find themselves in risky situations. Pilot Joe Goode shared his story of his first real firefight with CNN's Karl Penhaul.


JOE GOODE, APACHE CHOPPER PILOT (reading): "24 March 2003. Combat is as terrifying as I thought it would be. Even more, actually. Our first experience came last night and into this morning. I have seen the damage to some and heard of the damage to the rest of the aircraft in the battalion. Ours was the only one to come through the battle unscathed. Cindy and I can't believe it after all the fire we went through. We could have walked on top of it, it was so thick.

"Talk about a crazy night. Everything seemed to be going as planned for the first five minutes or so. Then we fired our first shot, and the city erupted in gunfire all around us. Before we knew it, we were scattered and making evasive maneuvers. It was as if we stirred up a hornet's nest. We lost sight of each other, and the ability to fight as a team. I thought my heart was going to pound free of my chest.

"The radios, all four of them, crackled with reports of guys taking fire, taking hits, making evasive maneuvers, trying to regroup and rally. We took fire again. And as crazy as it sounds, the flak from that 57-millimeter S-60 triple-A was spectacular. It all lasted only momentarily as we broke down to cover again, all the while juking left and right to avoid fire.

"I brought the helicopter out of the pattern we were circling in and turned southwest. What was before us both terrified and amazed me. It was the very same area where Doug and Ron had been shot down, or many of the others had taken hits.

"With Cindy pointing out fire, I pulled in all the power I had to pull and drove cyclic forward, flambeau (ph) zero-two-five with blasting the leaves off of palm trees and the sand off of rooftops. Until the time of two and half hours, all (UNINTELLIGIBLE) aircraft and crew were back safe.

"I pulled the power levers back to idle, and my right leg finally stopped shaking."

(END VIDEO CLIP) COOPER: The words of one Apache pilot.

U.S. commanders say the war in Iraq is about freeing the Iraqi people from an oppressive dictatorship, but many Arabs have a different take on the war. They see the coalition as just the latest invader in a country that has already seen too many.

CNN's Sheila MacVicar says that is why many Iraqis are returning home, saying they want to protect their homeland.


SHEILA MACVICAR, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): At the bus station on the outskirts of Amman, Zuhair (ph) and his friends are getting ready to head to Baghdad. Eight dollars buys a bus ride to the border, back to the country they left years ago. They are going, they say, to fight.

"The war started, and we have no choice," says Zuhair. "No one is forcing us, but we have to go."

Every day since the war began, hundreds of mostly young Iraqi men have shown up here ready to brave that perilous drive. Nearly 6,000 have crossed so far. It is a question, they say, of their homeland.

Down at the Iraqi embassy, the staff are busy issuing thousands of new identity documents to Iraqis who thought they would not return again during the time of Saddam Hussein.

Embassy staff handed out posters.

But many of those who came here say they're returning to fight for Iraq, not Saddam Hussein.

"It is my home," he says. "I'm going home to defend my country."

The U.S. calls this Operation Iraqi Freedom, a war of liberation, they say, to make Iraq's people free. Commanders acknowledge the resistance has been unexpectedly fierce.

One reason, perhaps, is history, a history not of liberation but occupation. The Turks and their Ottoman Empire, the British, who believed they were bringing order and law and who paid a terrible price in Iraq when the people rose up.

And there are these images, daily reminders of the ongoing occupation by Israel of Palestinian territory.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: No country, no people in this world like to see military occupation on their land.

MACVICAR: Bassam al-Adela (ph) is a Jordanian minister trying to explain why the Arab view, the Iraqi view, doesn't necessarily see liberation, but something else.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: War has been shifted in a way that it is no longer a war being fought against the Iraqi regime, it is a war that is being fought against the Iraqi homeland.

MACVICAR: And they are fighting, they say, to defend their homes. It is not just Iraq's regime at war, but Iraq's people.

Hallat (ph), an Iraqi physiotherapist, is making plans to leave his family in Amman and return to Baghdad. "America," he says, "does not have right on its side. America does not have the right to occupy my country." And if America stays, says Hallat and many others, no matter how little the time, what they are thinking about is occupation and resistance.

Sheila MacVicar, CNN, Amman.


BLITZER: And a very different attitude here in Kuwait. Kuwaitis, of course, remembering what happened about 12 years ago when the Iraqis invaded Kuwait, occupied this country about seven months, looted large chunks of it, terrorized the Kuwaiti people. They're very bitter.

That explains, Anderson, why the people in this country, small, affluent country of about 2.5 million people, generally are so supportive of the United States, of the Bush administration, and have given over perhaps a third of their country to the United States and coalition forces to stage this attack against Saddam Hussein from here inside Kuwait, Anderson.

COOPER: Wolf, Wolf, have you noticed any shift in public attitudes toward this war in the last 10 days or so?

BLITZER: If anything, a hardening of the attitudes, precisely because about 14 Iraqi missiles have been fired here at targets in Kuwait. Only one of them caused any damage, the other night at that shopping mall in the middle of the night. No one was seriously injured. One minor injury, some extensive physical damage.

But people have been scared, people have been nervous. They want the U.S. to win this war quickly so they can go about their lives, not having to worry about these kinds of attacks from the southern part of Iraq.

They're hoping they can consolidate the U.S. and British forces, their position in the southern part of Iraq, so the people here in Kuwait can breathe a little bit easier.

COOPER: All right, Wolf. We're going to come back to you shortly.

And our viewers are looking at a live picture on the side of our screen of what is going on in Baghdad right now. There has been a lot of activity there over the last few hours.

When we come back from this short break, there has been a lot of focus on suicide attacks of late, the recent attack in Najaf as well as today's suicide bombing in Netanya, Israel. We wanted some analysis, a glimpse, if you will, inside the mind, inside the thoughts of a suicide bomber.

That when our live coverage from the front lines continues.


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