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Marines Attack Iraqi Paramilitary in Nasiriya

Aired April 2, 2003 - 03:00   ET


ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: Let's take a look at the stories we are following at this hour.
The Pentagon says U.S. forces have begun a major offensive against Republican Guard troops southwest of Baghdad. This is a story we have been following a lot and will continue to follow in the next hour.

Two battles are under way, one against the Medina Division near Karbala, the other against the Baghdad Division at the Tigris River near Kut.

Our Pentagon correspondent, Jamie McIntyre, reports these actions are seen as the beginning, and we say the beginning, of the battle for Baghdad.

U.S. special forces have rescued Army Private Jessica Lynch. The 19-year-old Washington taken prisoner during a March 23 ambush on a supply convoy. Lynch is now recovering from multiple gunshot wounds. As part of the operation, Marines moved on paramilitary troops in Nasiriyah. The action was partly a diversion so that special forces could enter the hospital in Nasiriyah where Lynch was being held.

Two missiles were fired at U.S. troops near Najaf, but there were no injuries. One of the missiles landed in the desert, the other impact site unknown. U.S. soldiers donned gas masks for about 20 minutes as a precaution. Our Ryan Chilcote, who is with the 101st Airborne embedded with them, says it appears to be the first surface- to-surface missile attack inside Iraq.

The pictures and the sound tell the story. Coalition strikes hit Baghdad again today. Abu Dhabi TV reported that explosions rocked central Baghdad near the ministry of information. The ministry, of course, has been targeted repeatedly by coalition planes and missiles.

In other news, two Navy pilots bailed out over southwest Iraq after their plane lost an engine during refueling. Both pilots ejected from their F-14 at 20,000 feet. They were recovered by coalition forces. That's a graphic right there of the F-14 Tomcat supersonic fighter-bomber. Officials said engine failure was the likely cause of the crash.

And there is a lot coming up in this hour in CNN's coverage of the strike on Iraq. Call to jihad. Saddam wasn't there in person, but he is calling for a holy war, urging Muslims to die for Iraq in the name of religion. We'll take a look at how this could impact the war.

Live from the front lines, it's a first journalist -- it's a first. Journalists embedded with coalition troops, is it giving a fair picture of what is happening in the war? A question we're going to examine in a little bit.

And war on the World Wide Web. It's called blogging, and it's a whole new high-tech way to cover the conflict. We'll take you inside that.

And as we have been covering all morning, a convoy of coalition tanks rolls toward Baghdad as the war against Iraq enters possibly a crucial stage.

And Secretary of State Colin Powell's in Turkey today, attempting to mend fences with a key ally in the war against Iraq. These pictures taken just moments ago as he left a meeting with the foreign minister.

Good morning, everyone. It is Wednesday, April 2, the 14th day of the coalition war against Iraq. From CNN's global headquarters in Atlanta, I'm Anderson Cooper. With me, as always, Daryn Kagan in Kuwait City.

Good morning, Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning, Anderson, from Kuwait City. It is noon in Baghdad, just after 11 here in Kuwait. I'm going to be back more at the moment. First, though, first, though, we want to go ahead and check in on that story you were just talking about with Colin Powell. He is on the road. He is in Ankara, Turkey, and our Sheila MacVicar is there and gives us the latest on that meeting.

Sheila, hello.


U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has just left the Turkish foreign ministry, meeting with the Turkish foreign minister, his first stop on this very hastily organized and very short trip to Ankara. He'll be in Ankara for just a few more hours, meeting with Turkish president, Turkish prime minister. And we're hoping perhaps he'll have a press conference.

Now, the reason for this hastily organized trip is a little bit of fence-mending. You'll remember, of course, Daryn, that the U.S. war plan had called for large numbers, more than 60,000, U.S. troops to enter into northern Iraq from Turkish territory. In a vote in the Turkish parliament in the beginning of March, the Turks said no. And those forces have been making their way through the Mediterranean and around to Kuwait now, where some of them are just beginning to land.

A major setback, some have said, for the U.S. war plan. Now, Colin Powell isn't here to try to persuade the Turks to revisit that decision. There's another issue on the table, an issue of strategic importance. The Americans are becoming very much concerned that as the Kurdish forces press south towards the city of Kirkuk and Mosul in the north, as Iraqi forces retreat from the north towards the south, they are afraid that the Kurds may go into those territory. And the Turks themselves may then decide to put their own armed forces into northern Iraq, large numbers of Turkish forces in northern Iraq.

And in the view of the U.S. administration, that could lead to a situation which could cause basically a war within a war, a war between the Turks on one hand and the Kurds, who would fight to defend their territory to prevent the Turks from coming in.

So that is very much what is on Colin Powell's mind. He wants to reassure the Turkish government that such an incursion would not be necessary and try to get a commitment from them that they won't be moving their forces in and creating some kind of a sideshow war, Daryn.

KAGAN: Sheila, this last-minute trip put together kind of on the fly, so to speak. But going from Turkey, he goes on from here to Belgium to meet with NATO officials. What can you tell us about the purpose of that meeting?

MACVICAR: Again, it's more fence-mending. We've all heard the bitter words that have been spoken between the United States and France and Germany, those key European allies who, of course, would not join with the U.S. administration in pursuit of this war. This is one of those times where we are in a situation where there are a number of things going on. It is time to try to rebuild some of those relations.

And, of course, what they're looking forward to is postwar reconstruction, who does what, who pays for what? Is the United Nations involved? The European nations and the Turks, of course, have a number of opinions on that subject. That's one of things that Colin Powell will be talking to people about when he goes to Brussels a little later on today.

But there's been a number of key alliances which have been disrupted by the U.S. administration, the coalition's decision to pursue this war, and they're trying to begin to try to mend some of those fences and put some of those key alliances back on track, again, looking forward to regional stability in a postwar environment, Daryn.

KAGAN: Sheila MacVicar reporting from Ankara, Turkey. Thank you.

(UNINTELLIGIBLE) Kuwait, back to Atlanta, Anderson.

COOPER: Daryn, thanks very much.

We're going to check in now with Jane Arraf, who is and has been for quite some time now in northern Iraq, in Kurdish-controlled territory near the town of Kalak, for an update on what, if anything, is happening with a possibility of a northern front -- Jane.

JANE ARRAF, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, Anderson, we're hearing war planes above us. It's sort of incongruous on this gorgeous morning with birds singing, but it's an indication that pounding of the front lines just behind us is continuing.

Now, that northern front isn't quite what it was expected to be. There are special forces here, there are airborne troops, and several thousand troops. They've been gathering at the Harir (ph) air field, and they're expected to stabilize the region. But it's also an indication that this is not quite the war that many people here had expected.


ARRAF (voice-over): This was supposed to be the second front in the war on Iraq, the ground invasion which would force the Iraqi military to fight in the south and the north.

But again Tuesday, the campaign in the north finds itself limited to the air, U.S. bombing near the strategic cities of Mosul and Kirkuk. U.S. war planes also seem to be targeting Iraqi bunkers on the ridge separating Iraqi from Kurdish-controlled territory.

At the Harir air field in northern Iraq, U.S. forces continue to secure the perimeter of the airstrip and move in equipment. It's a shift in strategy after Turkey refused to allow U.S. land troops to use its bases.

Several thousand troops have either parachuted or been airlifted in, but so far the large numbers of troops and heavy armor needed to attack Iraqi forces from the north just aren't there.

Despite the intimidating security, soldiers landing in this Kurdish-controlled area have received a much different reception than in the south.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: I have to say, this is a beautiful country. The people here are great. I mean, here we are, you know, some of them, they hardly got nothing, but they just want to help us. You know, they give us bread and stuff. So, I mean, they're so nice, and they're great people, so I love it here.

ARRAF: Although it seems tranquil away from the front lines, Kurds aren't entirely out of danger. On Monday, Iraq launched at least two missiles into Kurdish-controlled territory. This one falling in the small town of Korai (ph).

The target was believed to be the regional administrative center of Salah Hadin (ph), just a few kilometers away. It damaged a house and showered the area with missile fragments. The occupants of the house were awake for predawn prayers and escaped unhurt.

In this town, though, where many people have fled from the cities fearing the bigger centers would be attacked, it was a reminder that almost nowhere is safe. (END VIDEOTAPE)

ARRAF: And a reminder that this war could take many more unpredictable turns.

Kurdish officials this morning tell us that Iraqi forces appear to be withdrawing further away from the front lines towards the city of Kirkuk. Now, that development, of course, is causing some eagerness on the part of Kurdish fighters here to actually get in there and be armed. They have agreed with the U.S. not to make any moves without the U.S. approval and without U.S. troops themselves, Anderson.

COOPER: Well, Jane, I was wanting to ask you about what sort of impact on the morale this is having among the Kurdish fighters, the fact that the U.S. isn't sending a large number of troops in. Unfortunately, we're out of time. I got to go to Daryn. But I'll try to ask you that question over the next hour if we could come back to you.

Thanks very much. Jane Arraf in northern Iraq -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Anderson, we're moving through these embedded reports to try to get as many as we can, especially when they come on the line.

Right now we have with us Karl Penhaul. He's with the 5 Corps, and he's in central Iraq. Karl, what's the latest, please?


Yes, Apache attack helicopters are fighting in support of the 3rd Infantry Division in fighting that began last night north of the city of Karbala. A 3rd Infantry Division unit, according to U.S. commanders here on the ground, have now isolated Karbala. Essentially they have taken the city of Karbala, although there are reported still pockets of resistance going on.

Other brigades of the 3rd Infantry Division, that's the tanks, the Bradley fighting units, have advanced further north of Karbala into a region of arable land that really (UNINTELLIGIBLE) as a roll towards the southern outskirts of Baghdad. Apache attack helicopters are supporting those units on the ground.

U.S. commanders here are telling me that resistance around Karbala was somewhat lighter than expected. Nevertheless, a large number of tanks, artillery positions have been destroyed, and U.S. commanders are saying that a significant number of Iraqi POWs are either being captured or are surrendering.

Early indications were that some of these Iraqi soldiers were not, in fact, members of the elite Republican Guard but could in fact be members of the border guard. There's still a question mark as to the veracity of that information. It's suggested that they may be posing as border guards to escape harsher treatment by U.S. and coalition forces. It may be that the Republican Guard units have withdraw to other defensive positions. Nevertheless, they don't seem to be taking all their tanks with them, because the tanks that the Apaches in the 3rd Infantry Division have been destroying are the more modern P-72 tanks, Daryn.

KAGAN: Well, Karl, if I'm not mistaken, the unit you're traveling with, you mentioned POWs and Apache helicopters, this is the unit that the two Apache helicopter pilots who've been taken POW, this is where they're from. Can you tell us -- I think this is about a week since they were taken -- how that has affected morale in this group?

PENHAUL: Emotions here regarding those two Apache helicopter pilots that were taken POW have been up and down, obviously. There's been no further news as far as we can gather from Baghdad about the status of those, beyond the fact that we do know that they were shown immediately after their capture on TV. Obviously the soldiers and pilots, they continue to think about them and continue to think about the impact of the war on them.

But essentially, I think that the mood is on the rise, the morale is on the rise, given that U.S. forces are once again on the move. And this area around the city of Karbala was always seen as one of the decisive battlegrounds, because it occupies a strategic point on river and highway crossings on route to Baghdad.

So a feeling among the troops here that once this point is passed, then it's full steam ahead towards the outskirts of Baghdad, Daryn.

KAGAN: Karl Penhaul reporting to us from central Iraq. Thank you.

Anderson, you take it from here.

COOPER: Yes, Daryn, why don't we just give the viewers just an overall sense of what is going on, to the best of our knowledge, on the ground in Iraq right now, to sum up the latest moves on coalition forces.

What is being called the battle of Baghdad appears to be close. U.S. ground forces are engaged in a major fight with the Republican Guard at Karbala, as Karl Penhaul was just reporting. That, of course, south of the capital.

The 101st Airborne is in the vicinity of the central Iraqi town of Najaf. Elements of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division less than 60 miles form Baghdad. Pentagon sources say U.S. Marines are going after the Republican Guard's Medina Division and are expected to press on against the Baghdad Division near Kut.

Now, if you look at that map right there, you see some of the Republican Guard forces believed to have -- that were guarding Tikrit, which is the ancestral homeland of Saddam Hussein, apparently they moved south to join up with these other Republican Guard units, who are already positioned south. Military planners often say they don't want to start an offensive unless there -- the -- their enemy has been 50 percent degraded, their forces degraded.

Apparently even with those Republican Guard units south of Baghdad being reinforced, apparently the depletion has been enough to warrant this attack, which we believe to be ongoing.

I want to check in right now with Chris Plante, who's at the Pentagon, for the latest on what is going on in what may be the beginning of the battle of Baghdad -- Chris.


That's right, the Army's 3rd Infantry Division taking on the Republican Guard Medina Division south and west of Baghdad while the Marine Corps' 1st Division is moving up further to the east and taking on the Baghdad Division, another Republican Guard Division, around the town of Al Kut.

Apparently, significant action taking place in both cities. This is clearly the first step toward going into the city of Baghdad, if that becomes necessary. The plan all along has been to go in and take apart the Republican Guard divisions surrounding the city and clear the way for forces to go in.

We're seeing a lot of activity. We're hearing about the Apache helicopters, certainly A-10 Warthogs coming in and hitting tanks. And as Karl reported, one of the first things they want to go after is the heavy tanks, their front-line tanks, the Soviet-made T-72, which is the top-of-the-line tank in Iraq.

And they're focusing on those. We've seen some of the films from the briefings of those being bombed in their revetments. That significantly weakens their ability to fight, and the fighting continues.

The battle for Baghdad certainly is near.

COOPER: And Chris, just want to reiterate to the viewers, one official, a military official, told CNN that the goal is "to punch here, punch there" -- this is a quote -- "to punch here, punch there, and then go get it."

So really not a sense of entering the city of Baghdad at this point, it's more a question of targeting these individual units, some of whom may have joined together in some capacity before moving on to the city.

And inside the city of Baghdad is a whole other can of worms. I mean, you got the special Republican Guard, which is that Republican Guard unit which only operates within the city of Baghdad, plus those paramilitary forces, I imagine, and who knows, really, what else is waiting inside there?

PLANTE: That's exactly right. And there are additional problems to deal with, certainly. The hope has been all along, the hope continues to be that once they significantly reduce the ability of the Iraqi military to fight, that at some point they will make the decision to stop fighting and to give up.

Doesn't appear to be any sign of that at this point, certainly, and as we discussed awhile ago, grave concerns out there also that the Iraqis may unleash chemical weapons on the allied forces as they move toward Baghdad when they cross this imaginary red line, wherever that may be.

So still a lot to be concerned about, but overall, the reports are very good. They have reduced the strength of these key Republican Guard divisions to the south of the city, which is where the majority of the U.S. and British forces are massed. So things are going, as they say here, according to plan. The Iraqi forces are being weakened systematically, and that will open the door for the final battle for Baghdad, Anderson.

COOPER: And we should also point out that these Republican Guard divisions, the Medina, Nebuchadnezzar, Hammurabi, the other ones we've been talking about, are actually not allowed, are traditionally not allowed inside the city of Baghdad. They operate protecting the routes into Baghdad.

Inside the city, there's this special Republican Guard that we've got a -- I know we've got a graphic sort of describing what it's all about. We're going to put that up. But that, this special Republican Guard, actually operating, as far as we know, at this point, inside the city of Baghdad, about 26 active troops believed, four brigades considered elite of the elite, not only protect Saddam Hussein, also protect Baghdad.

So once the regular Republican Guard are dealt with to some degree, I would imagine, special Republican Guard, it's the paramilitaries, the Ba'ath militia, whatever else, awaits in Baghdad. So we will wait on that, and we will be following that very closely the next couple of hours.

Chris, we'll check in with you in a little while.

Going to go to a short break. My colleague Daryn Kagan and I will be right back.


KAGAN: Speculation still swirls over whether Saddam Hussein is dead, alive, or wounded. One answer may have come on Tuesday when Iraqi television announced he would address his nation. But instead of him, it was Information Minister Mohammed Sayeed al-Saaf (ph). He appeared instead, and he read a statement that he said was from Saddam. The letter called the coalition invasion, quote, "an aggression on religion and self and on the Islamic nation."

It went on to say, "Let's go and do jihad."

For more on this, the significance of Saddam not making his own statement, let's bring in Rym Brahimi. She is in Amman, Jordan. Rym, hello.


Indeed, very interesting moment, everybody was expecting President Saddam Hussein to come on television. He was announced by a TV commentator.

And instead of him, there was the minister of information, Mohammed Sayeed al-Saaf came up, defining, as you said, the battle in religious terms, calling on people to do jihad, calling on Iraqis to defend their religion, and saying that they would be rewarded if they died to defend their religion and their country in this battle.

Now, that, of course, is very interesting. It's not the first time that the information minister reads addresses that come from the president to the Iraqi people or to the world, for that matter. But, of course, under the current circumstances, with a lot of (audio interrupt) -- Daryn.

KAGAN: All right, Rym, I think we're having a bit of a -- do we have Rym? OK, you're with us. Let me just follow up with a question here about the group of freed journalists that showed up in Jordan from Iraq. What do you know about them, please?

BRAHIMI: Absolutely. Daryn, the journalists, three journalists and a peace activist, actually, showed up in Jordan last night, last night. Now, they had been detained for a week at a jail, Abu Glaid (ph) jail, that is near the international airport in Baghdad. It turns out they had been -- they'd disappeared on March 25. There was a lot of concern among other journalists as to where they might have been taken away.

When they arrived in Jordan last night, the journalists and the peace activist, who is from Denmark, told reporters that they had been detained in single cells in that prison. They had also been interrogated by Iraqi intelligence officials, who were accusing them of being American spies. They denied that very strongly and were released about a week later.

They said it was rough conditions in there, but they were not mistreated, they were not harmed physically at all, Daryn.

KAGAN: Certainly not the assignment they signed up for. Rym Brahimi in Amman, Jordan. Thank you.

We'll take a quick break. We'll be back after this.


COOPER: Our coverage of the war in Iraq continues.

Two surface-to-surface missiles hit near U.S. troops outside the central Iraqi town of Najaf early today. That, of course, the city where there was that suicide bombing on Saturday. Soldiers with the 101st Airborne Division put on gas masks, as you see there, as a precaution, but were allowed to remove them some 20 minutes after the first strike. No chemical weapons were involved, obviously, and no soldiers were injured.

British forces maintained their presence on the western and southern edge of the city of Basra. The British military has a three- pronged goal in Basra, one fighting regular Iraqi forces and Iraqi paramilitary forces, as well as gaining the trust of the civilians.

Meanwhile, elsewhere, U.S. reinforcements are arriving, 5,000 troops from the 4th Infantry Division and their equipment are now offloading in Kuwait. Twenty-five thousand division troops should be ready for battle in a matter of weeks.

The 4th Division is the best-equipped unit in the Army, had -- they had been held in the Mediterranean Sea in the hopes that there would be a northern front that would open up, but that obviously didn't happen, so now they're arriving in Kuwait.

I'm told we just got Jason Bellini on the videophone. He's embedded with the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit. We'll just say he is south of Baghdad.

Jason, what can you tell us?

JASON BELLINI, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, I can tell you (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in Nasiriyah, we arrived here in the wee hours of the morning, just after and really during, as well, a major assault on this city. I'm going to show you some pictures now, if we have them available. (UNINTELLIGIBLE) photographer (UNINTELLIGIBLE) using nightscope.

You can see elements of this attack last night, including a rocket attack, rocket attacks, artillery pieces and artillery rounds that landed in the city, aimed at Fedayeen strongholds in the city.

Air cover support was provided by helicopters, Cobra helicopters. Major assault, they lit up the sky late at night. I imagine they -- the residents here in this city were woken up by loud explosions that we heard as we were on our way in, and by the sky that was lit up by buildings that were on fire.

It was quite a show. We initially saw it from a distance. That's where those pictures were taken while we were on our way in after the initial assault. We made our way to here.

And today, you're now seeing life in the city behind us, we're on the Euphrates River. You can see -- we're seeing people out here on the river, going collecting some water.

The streets are relatively quiet. You do see people who are going about their business. The Marines here keeping an eye on them. The other thing the Marines are keeping an eye on, Anderson, are vehicles that include white pickup trucks and taxis, which they're concerned may have scouts from these militia elements, scouts who are checking them out.

It's hard to say. We've seen a number of them already today. Marines have their binoculars on them. They believe that militia, that some of these militia (UNINTELLIGIBLE) militia attacks have come from these taxis and white pickup trucks.

So still a very tense situation here for the Marines, the Marines we're embedded with, here in Nasiriyah, Anderson.

COOPER: Jason, as I'm sure you well know, Nasiriyah was the scene of this rescue of the -- the retaking of U.S. Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch, who was found in a hospital controlled by the Fedayeen Saddam in Nasiriyah. There was a joint operation combined U.S. special forces and Marines. There was also a diversion operation.

I don't know what you can say. Do you know anything about that? Do you have any updates on that?

BELLINI: Well, what we do know is that it was a coordinated attack with the units organizing the attack that we were just showing you the pictures of, those night vision pictures of, meant to be conducted simultaneously with that rescue. The reason being they were using this attack on a different area of the city as a diversion tactic, trying to take the attention away from the Fedayeen stronghold where they went and did this rescue.

So the information we have is that it was coordinated, and last night was the big night when they launched this assault, Anderson.

COOPER: Jason, the city you're in, Nasiriyah, senior Marine officials told CNN days ago that the fighting that has been going on there over the last couple of days has been some of the fiercest the Marines have been involved with since the Vietnam War.

The last I heard, Marines were in control of the north of the city and the south. There was still sort of an open question about the rest of it. I don't know, A, if you know, or B, if you can say, but can you give a sense of what the military picture is inside Nasiriyah right now?

BELLINI: Well, the word "controlled," we've been learning since we've been here, is a rather ambiguous term as used by the military. They used that term in the early days when we were at Umm Qasr, and then, you know, hours after there were attacks that indicated that things were not fully under control. But that is the intent here.

Originally, the plan was to just secure the route north to Baghdad, and to not come into the town and try to engage -- try to engage in populated areas. That, I'm sorry to report (ph), has changed and now they're going in and doing -- doing business here because they feel in order to make this area secure, to make the passage north secure, they actually have to go on the offensive -- go on the offensive and ferret out these militia members -- these Fedayeen militia members -- Anderson.

COOPER: So it's -- it's a question now of -- of -- actually, I'm not even going to ask that. It's too much detail.

Jason, thanks very much for joining us. Good luck to you. Stay safe, all right? We'll check in with you as soon as we can. TO ORDER A VIDEO OF THIS TRANSCRIPT, PLEASE CALL 800-CNN-NEWS OR USE OUR SECURE ONLINE ORDER FORM LOCATED AT

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