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Fighting Reported to be Quite Heavy with Republican Guard

Aired April 2, 2003 - 04:30   ET


DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: It is Wednesday, April 2nd, from Kuwait City. I'm Daryn Kagan.
ANDERSON COOPER: And good morning from CNN's global headquarters in Atlanta. I'm Anderson Cooper.

You are looking at a live picture of the bridge from Basra, where there is British forces ringing the city, the focus of a lot of action over the last several weeks.

Good morning, Daryn. Good morning, everyone. We are going to get an update right now on what is going on at this moment from Tom Mintier at Central Command in Doha, Qatr. Tom, what's the latest?

TOM MINTIER, CNN BANGKOK BUREAU CHIEF: Anderson, the latest is that there are reports of engagements by the coalition on at least two fronts of the Republican Guard, and the fighting is reported to be quite heavy. Also, overnight the rescue of Private First Class Jessica Lynch from a hospital in Iraq. And also, during that raid, which was a special operations function, the recovery of 11 bodies or human remains from that hospital.

Joining us now, Captain Frank Thorp, Public Affairs Officer for Central Command. Tell us a little more about this raid. It was obviously planned a bit in advance.

CAPT. FRANK THORP, CENTCOM SPOKESMAN: Planned well in advance. We had very good intelligence that Private First Class Lynch was being held as a prisoner in the Saddam hospital there in Nasiriya. We planned the raid with Special Forces; we used the cover of darkness to swoop in in a helicopter, take control of the area, and remove Private First Class Lynch safely from the area.

MINTIER: We had reports that there were diversionary actions going on in the area of the hospital at the same time.

THORP: Tom, one of the good things about an operation like this is there's a lot of deception. There's a lot of information that we don't give out about this operation which helps us to succeed in the future. And there are reports about deception, and I'll just let those stand as reports that are out there.

MINTIER: All right. At the same time you are confirming this raid, you are confirming the recovery of 11 sets of remains down in and around the hospital by Special Forces.

THORP: That's exactly right. When we went in, we found 11 bodies in and around the area. We have not yet confirmed that they are Americans who were in the same unit with Private First Class Lynch, the 507. But we have removed those with some assistance of the individuals in the hospital. We removed those, and we are working to identify them today.

MINTIER: How important is it, if indeed they are Americans, to bring them back off the battlefield?

THORP: It's very important. It's very important to us as Americans to bring back our fellow soldiers. But most importantly, is to bring back somebody like Private First Class Lynch, who was risking her life on the battlefield. For her and her fellow soldiers to know the commitment of the American forces to do our best to go in and get her, as well as those bodies; that we never leave our own on the battlefield.

MINTIER: Where is she now and what is her condition?

THORP: She is in an American medical facility in the area. We don't have her condition because right now, as we speak, she is being treated by our doctors.

MINTIER: Is it possible that she may be flown to Germany for medical treatment?

THORP: Germany would be one option. There's also the United States Naval Ship Comfort, the hospital ship that's in the Persian Gulf. That would be another option. There are also field hospitals in the area.

MINTIER: You're holding a piece of paper in your hand; you just got some new information. There have been fears that this battle would not only be fought house to house, but at many of the religious sites, in hospitals you have found tanks and things like that. You're now receiving information that mosques are being used by the Iraqi military?

THORP: That's right. We had heard reports that this possibly would be done. What we've seen here is Iraqi forces using very important religious shrines.

As you know, this is an important area of the world for many religions. And what we have confirmed is that Iraqi forces are using Ali (ph) mosques. They're in Najaf, which is a very important religious site to seek refuge, to seek hiding, and fire from this mosque.

This, again, flows from many other atrocities that are being committed. And, quite frankly, we believe is, one, an international violation of war, as well as an attempt to put coalition forces in a bad position, because we also are working very hard to protect these religious sites.

MINTIER: How about the current operation, as much as you can say, about this advance on Republic Guard units south of Baghdad? THORP: Those operations are ongoing. We can't say a whole lot, but the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force has engaged the Iraqi Republic Guard. They're in Alkut (ph), off to the southeast of Baghdad. And Army soldiers from the 3rd Infantry Division have engaged Republican Guard in the southwest of Baghdad.

The reports we get so far are good. The battle is being waged. We have no reports yet of casualties.

MINTIER: This is really the first set (ph) piece battle, instead of irregular forces and people behind human shields. This is the first time outside of air power that the ground forces have engaged major formations of the Republican Guard.

THORP: That's right. There are several different versions of Iraqi military. There's these paramilitary, who really are not organized, as you say. Fighting as squads, they're very small, civilian clothes, you know ragtag kind of organization.

There's the regular army, which we engaged all the way from Kuwait all the way up to where we had positioned ourselves. And then this is the next step of their force, the Republican Guard.

MINTIER: And what's the next objective after this Republican Guard engagement? Is it Baghdad?

THORP: Baghdad would be next geographically. But the number one goal of this whole thing is to bring down this Iraqi regime.

MINTIER: All right. Captain Thorp, hopefully we'll get some information. I understand that there is video that was taken by a combat camera team during the raid on the hospital. Are we going to get to see that?

THORP: We've heard reports of video. And if there's video, we're going to great efforts to show -- as the last couple of days have shown -- to show video of the operations on the battlefield, to give the American people and, quite frankly, the world as close of an eye of what's going on as possible.

MINTIER: All right. U.S. Army Private First Class is at an American medical facility right now. A POW in Iraq that was spirited out in a raid by special operations. In addition to that, public affairs here saying that 11 sets of remains were removed from the battlefield, from this hospital, and also brought back.

So we'll have to wait and see what the identification procedure is on that. But a live POW has been brought out of Iraq, back in coalition hands. Anderson, back to you.

COOPER: All right. Tom Mintier, thanks very much.

And just as a reminder to viewers, we are anticipating a press conference with wounded U.S. servicemen. This is going to be sometime around 5:00 a.m. Eastern Time, so just in about 20 minutes or so. You'll want to stay tuned for it. This is going to be at Lundsthal (ph) Regional Medical Center in Germany. I don't know if you saw the press conference several days -- one Marine, two Army sergeants talking. They were the first wounded that we heard from, and it was a very emotional, very interesting press conference to listen to. So you'll want to stay tuned for that. That's in about 20 minutes or so, a press conference from Lundsthal (ph), Germany.

We're going to check in with Daryn Kagan now, who is, as always, live in Kuwait City -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Anderson, now we're going to go over to Kevin Sites. He has been in the area of northern Iraq during this entire conflict and even the time before. And he joins us from there now -- Kevin, hello.

KEVIN SITES, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Hi, Daryn. I'm about 35 kilometers distance southwest from Chamchamal. That's where we've been based most of the time.

It was very interesting to listen to Tom Mintier's interview with that private, talking about the Iraqis using mosques for military means, because we have a perfect example of that today. The de-mining group, MAG, the Mine Advisory Group -- we spoke to them a couple of days ago -- is working at a mosque in this region right now. This is called the Garmian (ph) region, and this is a very sacred mosque to the Kurdish people.

It's called the Hassan Qatar Chawar (ph) Mosque. And basically, the Iraqis have used this -- the Iraqi military -- as a storage point for hundreds of mines. And I'm going to talk with Salaam Mohammed (ph). He is a technical director for MAG. And tell me a little bit, Salaam (ph), about the operations that you're doing here today.

SALAAM MOHAMMED, TECHNICAL DIRECTOR, MAG: After the reconnaissance of this area, we decided to come unclear this holy place, because following the withdraw of the Iraqi forces from this area, a lot of people are going to come back and visit this holy place.

SITES: As pilgrims.

MOHAMMED: Yes. This is some sort of (UNINTELLIGIBLE), because this place has got a lot of respect among the community. Every Wednesday they're trying to come and visit this place.

SITES: Why would the Iraqis store mines in a mosque? Isn't that an insult to Islam?

MOHAMMED: It's an insult to Islam, in the first place, and an insult to the Kurdish community as well. And they are not just using it as a mine dump. The mosque has been used as accommodation and as a toilet, which is very big disrespect for the Kurdish community, and Islam as well.

SITES: Well let's take a look at the extent of the mines. If we can just ask Bill (ph) to tilt down a little bit with us. We have hundreds here. You said as many as 600. Tell me what we're looking at. What are the black mines, and what are these bounding mines that we're looking at over here?

MOHAMMED: Yes. The black ones are Russian PNM (ph) (UNINTELLIGIBLE) blast mines. And this -- those are Italian VST (ph). (UNINTELLIGIBLE) would normally be laid in front of the mine drones (ph).

If you look over here, you'll see VS 1.6 (ph) anti-tank mines, and then Valmara (ph) V69 (ph). Again, it's anti-tank mines.

SITES: That's a bounding mine from...

MOHAMMED: It's a bounding fragmentation mine.

SITES: It jumps up and it...

MOHAMMED: Yes. The way it's working, this mine has been rendered safe by MAG de-miners. The mine is ordinarily like this, in the first place. So it's working by two ways. Either to put the pressure on them, or hit the trip wires.

In both cases, this crown (ph) or (UNINTELLIGIBLE) will be tilted. And as soon as it has been tilted, the striker (ph) or the pin will hit the detonators inside here. What the next stage is, as soon as the igniter initiated, there's a black powder, and throwing the mines out up to this distance. Then the second detonator will initiate, and the mine will explode in this high (ph).

SITES: Now I was watching your guys earlier inside the mosque, and they were diffusing these things like someone else would shell peanuts. They were doing them very quickly.

You were telling me that it's safe now. I even saw them drop a couple of them, but no one was worried about it. They were walking on the tops of these things. Once they're diffused they're safe?

MOHAMMED: All the mines -- the detonators have been taken out, and now they are safe. And we are going to put them in the back of the wagon and taken them to a demolition crown (ph).

SITES: So you'll explode these at a different site from here?

MOHAMMED: Definitely it's MAG's policy after picking up those mines, then they have to be destroyed, not to be used somewhere else by someone else.

SITES: So Daryn, there you have it. It's basically a major operation here. An example of Iraqis using a religious site as a storage ground for landmines. And MAG has been out here for weeks now working around the region. They have been in northern Iraq since 1992...

MOHAMMED: Yes, that's right.

SITES: ... and doing a lot of great work out here. So it's good to see this. It makes it safe again for civilians moving into the area -- especially a religious site. Back to you, Daryn.

KAGAN: Kevin, very interesting report. So is that stash just an indication of what already has been laid down in the countryside around that area where you are?

SITES: That's a good question. And let me ask Salaam (ph) that. Daryn has asked if this is an indication of the number of mines they may have laid since this has been a storing warehouse for them? Is this just a small portion of what's been laid in the countryside?

MOHAMMED: Exactly. Following the withdraw of the Iraqi forces, we were the first organization, mine action organization. We moved to the area; we conducted a very rapid survey.

There are hundreds of mines that have been laid. This is just a very small example of the Iraqi mine dumps. And thousands and thousands of these mine dumps have been emptied, and the mines are deployed on the ground.

SITES: You said to me at least 10 to 12 million mines in northern Iraq alone. Second only to Afghanistan. Is that correct?

MOHAMMED: That's right, according to the statistics and the estimations. This is the way to go ahead with it (ph).

SITES: Daryn, they call these mines hidden soldiers. This area has been liberated since 1992, and yet people are still becoming casualties because of what you see here.

KAGAN: Kevin Sites, very important and dangerous work your guest and his group are doing. Thank you for that report.

We'll take a quick break. And coming up, much more. Stay with us.


COOPER: Our coverage continues now. Four journalists who were missing in Iraq for a week have turned up safely in Jordan. Among them, freelance photographer Molly Bingham. That's her right there.

She was on an assignment for "Esquire" magazine. She, you might remember, was the official photographer for Al Gore when he was vice president. Two "Newsday" journalists, reporter Matthew McAllester and photographer Moises Saman also arrived in Jordan after being taken from Iraqi authorities last week.


MATTHEW MCALLESTER, "NEWSDAY": We were in Abu Ghraid prison for seven or eight days. There were no specific charges. It wasn't much fun, but we were not physically hurt. And we're very happy to be out.

But the single most important thing is that we understand that there were many people who were trying their very hardest to get us out. And I think I speak for everyone that we're all incredibly grateful. And we're really quite happy to talk later, but we're a bit tired.


COOPER: Understandably. A Danish photographer was also released from Iraqi custody.

CNN's Ryan Chilcote is embedded with the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division in Najaf. The unit arrived in some force in the town yesterday, came under fire today from Iraqi missiles. Let's here what Ryan reported.


RYAN CHILCOTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: The U.S. military now confirming that two surface-to-surface missiles have impacted the vicinity of the city of Najaf in central Iraq. Troops from the 101st Airborne woken up this morning by the so-called scud alarm, donning their masks. And they were later given the all-clear. An early indication that those missiles were not laced with any kind of chemical weapons.

Now I'm currently following the 2nd Battalion, better known as (UNINTELLIGIBLE) of the 1st Brigade of the 101st Airborne. All troops from this battalion have been accounted for. There are no casualties.

You know this Iraqi or apparent Iraqi missile attack on the city follows a two-day U.S. ground offensive, moving troops into the outskirts of Najaf. Troops entering into the outskirts of course to secure that area from Fedayeen fighters -- with a Fedayeen group, a paramilitary group that has been offering up quite a large deal of resistance to U.S. forces over the last week.

Military commanders here on the ground already saying they believe that this may have been President Saddam Hussein trying to target, trying to react to U.S. troops on the ground in Najaf. Ryan Chilcote, CNN, in Najaf, central Iraq.


COOPER: Just a brief programming note. In about 10 minutes or so we are anticipating a press conference at Lundshtal (ph) Hospital with wounded U.S. servicemen. You'll want to stay tuned for that.

Then coming up at 6:00 a.m. Eastern, British Prime Minister Tony Blair answering questions from the House of Commons in London. We'll bring you live coverage of that as well. Our coverage, however, continues in a moment.


COOPER: Well if you're watching us at this hour and you're not my mother, you may be a news junkie, or maybe you have a loved one serving in the war. Many Americans have been glued to their TV sets in recent days. But as our Jeff Flock found out, for many others, believe it or not, life has been going on as normal.


JEFF FLOCK, CNN CHICAGO BUREAU CHIEF (voice-over): With all the bombs, drama and action unfolding in Iraq, it seems all of America is watching the coverage.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Saddam Hussein -- what's his name? Saddam?

FLOCK: Or are they?

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I make it a point not to.

FLOCK: News ratings are up. At CNN, for example, before the war about a half million people were watching at any given moment. Now it's well over two million. Other cable news channels show similar increases. The Web site had about 50 million page views a day pre-war. Now it's well over 100 million.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: I've been obsessed with the developments in Iraq. I'm watching them constantly.

FLOCK: But she has a son at war. The fact is, for much of America life goes on.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Day to day, everything pretty much operates as usual now.

FLOCK: At the Best Buy in Chicago, there are hundreds of televisions, but not one is tuned to the war.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: There's only so much over-saturation on TV before you can finally, you know, want to watch "Seinfeld" or "The Simpsons." You know, get your mind off of the war.

FLOCK: Movie attendance is off. Last weekend, compared to the same time last year, the top 10 movies did $25 million less business, down almost 25 percent.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE, "HEAD OF STATE": We'd like you to run for president.


FLOCK: Though a "Daily Variety" story says, "The explanation may be more the mediocrity of product than war jitters." The military action picture "Basic" debuted at number four.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I think there's a certain point that I'll say, OK, enough already. I'm tired of the war coverage.

FLOCK: Retail sales have been down since the war almost two percent, according to ShopperTrak. But analysts blame a late Easter, more than what some call the CNN effect, shoppers staying home to watch war coverage.

BILL MARTIN, CEO, SHOPPERTRAK: Even though we see a downward trend, it's not something that we would say would be driven by the events in Iraq.

FLOCK: Of the 13 opening day baseball games, only two were sell- outs. But lousy spring weather may have been more to blame than people home watching war.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Don't worry about things you can't do anything about. So at the point that they drop a bomb in Chicago, that's when I'll start following the war.

FLOCK: Some do protest or show support. Many watch or hope. But for most, it seems life does indeed go on. I'm Jeff Flock, CNN, in Chicago.


COOPER: When we come back, some soldiers say good-bye in Fort Hood. We'll be back in a moment.


COOPER: Well that's about it for me this morning. My colleague, Carol Costello, will be here in a few moments to continue our coverage. Before I go, however, the U.S. military presence in Iraq is about to get a whole lot bigger with the arrival of the 4th Infantry Division from Fort Hood, Texas. Some are already arriving in Kuwait.

CNN's Jamie Colby was there for the tearful farewells, as the latest soldiers moved out.


JULIA SHORT, HUSBAND LEAVING FOR IRAQ: I don't know. I'm just very, very upset.

JAMIE COLBY, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This is the moment Sergeant Lucas Short's wife, Julia (ph), has tried to prepare for.

SHORT: He's going to miss the birth of his son, so that's really bothering me.

COLBY: The next wave of soldiers from the 4th Infantry at Fort Hood is about to deploy.

SGT. LUCAS SHORT, 124TH SIGNAL BATTALION: We're professionals, we have a mission to do. Go there, do my job. You've got to set your personal life aside. Don't wear your emotions on your sleeve. Get out there, get the job done, and come home.

COLBY: Last steps, last hugs, last words. And a final phone call.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Yes, man, I'm out, man. We're going to leave right now.

COLBY: They are focused and determined. UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We've been getting prepared for like over four months now. So we're more than ready. I don't think we even need a pep talk.

COLBY: They get a party. What the military calls age- appropriate music, and a patriotic menu.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: We're trying to make the soldiers forget about what just happened to them. I don't know who is not coming back, and that's why we want this here to be special for them.

COLBY: And for dessert, a spiritual sendoff and a dose of reality: chemical decontamination kits. Training has taught these soldiers to make the right moves. Bravery begins long before the battlefield.

UNIDENTIFIED FEMALE: Everybody is coming out like little kids. And when we come home, we are going to have (UNINTELLIGIBLE).

COLBY: As will the little ones left behind. Jamie Colby, CNN, Fort Hood, Texas.


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