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U.S. Forces Begin Major Offensive Against Republican Guard Troops

Aired April 2, 2003 - 02:00   ET


The top story this hour, the Pentagon says U.S. forces have begun a major offensive against Republican Guard troops southwest of Baghdad. Two battles are under way, one against the Medina Division near Karbala, and another aimed at the Baghdad Division at the Tigris River near the city of Kut.

Pentagon correspondent Jamie McIntyre reports that these moves by U.S. troops are seen as the beginning of the battle for Baghdad. Routes by Karbala and Kut are seen as the major entry points into the capital city.

More on that in just a moment.

A rescue operation by U.S. special forces and the Marines resulted in the return of Army Private Jessica Lynch. The 19-year- old, listed as missing in action, had been taken prisoner during the ambush of the 507th Maintenance Unit on March 23. Five others from her unit are still being held prisoner.

Lynch is now back in a coalition hospital recovering from multiple gunshot wounds, we are told.

As a part of the operation, Marines began an offensive against Iraqi paramilitary troops. The action was partly a diversion so that special forces could enter the Iraqi hospital where Lynch was being held.

In other news, 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 put on gas masks for about 20 minutes as a precaution.

Ryan Chilcote, our correspondent who is embedded with the 101st Airborne, says it appears to be the first surface-to-surface missile attack that has been used inside Iraq.

Coalition strikes once again hit Baghdad in the early hours of Wednesday morning. There are the pictures. Abu Dhabi TV reported that explosions rocked central Baghdad near the ministry of information. Now, the ministry, of course, has been targeted repeatedly by coalition planes over the last several days. Two Navy pilots bailed out at 20,000 feet over southwest Iraq after their plane lost an engine during refueling. Both pilots were able to eject from their F-14 and were later recovered by coalition forces. Officials said engine failure was the likely cause of the crash. That's a graphic there of the F-14 Tomcat.

Coming up this hour in CNN's coverage of the war in Iraq, a lot to cover.

A battle in Karbala, coalition forces and Iraq's Republican Guard face off as the U.S. launches a major ground offensive. We will bring you the very latest, just in a minute or so.

Missing for more than a week, some journalists are now safe, released from an Iraqi prison. You will hear their harrowing story.

And war letters, thousands of messages from soldiers sent to loved ones back home. We're going to read from the pages of America's autobiography.


JAMES WILKINSON, CENTCOM SPOKESMAN: It is a nation that does not leave its heroes behind. There are other heroes out in that field we still want to go get. So this is -- while it's a success, this makes us even more determined to bring our other brothers home.


COOPER: One of those heroes has been returned safe. The military brings back one of its own, 19-year-old Army Private Jessica Lynch rescued from her Iraqi captors.

And a good morning to you. It is Wednesday, April 2. From CNN's global headquarters in Atlanta, I'm Anderson Cooper, also joined by Daryn Kagan in Kuwait.

Good morning, Daryn.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Good morning to you, Anderson.

Let's take a look at some of the time checks, 2:00 a.m. on the East Coast, 10 a.m. here in Kuwait, and with the time change, 11:00 a.m. in Baghdad. That is where Operation Iraqi Freedom is now in day 14.

We have a lot of news to get to over the next few hours. We're going to have more on the American POW that you just mentioned, rescued by special forces. That's coming up in a few minutes.

First, though, Anderson, back to you for the latest on the coalition forces pushing through Iraqi defenses to get to Baghdad.

COOPER: Daryn, thanks.

That is our top story this early morning. We start with what may be, may be, the beginning of the march on Baghdad.

The 3rd Infantry has begun an offensive against the Medina Division of the Republican Guard near Karbala. Also under way, the Marines are battling Republican Guard forces on the Tigris River near Kut. The significance, Karbala and Kut guard the major routes to Baghdad.

The 3rd Infantry, 7th Cavalry, had been holding just south of Karbala but now is engaged with Republican Guard troops. The 101st Airborne is providing support from the west. A-10 Warthogs have been heard in the area, providing close air support for the infantry.

To the east, the 1st Marines have moved up to Kut, where they took a bridge over the Saddam Canal.

Republican Guard troops are blocking routes along the Tigris and Euphrates Rivers. Pentagon officials see the offensive against Guard divisions as the first step in the battle of Baghdad.

Just two hours ago, we talked to Scott Nelson of "The Boston Globe." Nelson is embedded with the Marines on the eastern prong of the offensive, and he said that the big battle seems to have started.


SCOTT NELSON, "THE BOSTON GLOBE" (on phone): Here, there's a sense of the beginning of the end has started, that the battle for Baghdad is under way. The Marines here, before dawn this morning, moved out and started a fight to engage the Republican Guard tank units in the area, started with artillery and rocket fire. And infantry moved out to clear the way. Now the tanks are moving in to engage the Republican Guard tanks in the area.

And there's a definite sense here that the battle for Baghdad is under way, and we're not going to stop now until we get there. It is what the Marines keep telling me.


KAGAN: Another sign that something is taking place, our Marty Savidge is with the Marines in central Iraq. And after some time, some days not really moving, is on the move again.

Marty's joining us now. Martin, what do you know?

MARTIN SAVIDGE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, just as you point out, Daryn, we're with the 1st Battalion, 7th Marines. They have been assigned to security duty, securing the supply lines and trying to track down the paramilitary units in this region.

That may still be the case, although now we are no longer staying put, as we have been for the past couple of days. There had been a flurry of reports and orders coming down last night, meetings in the middle of the night, and then now, as you see, we are on the move. I can't tell you exactly where we're headed, they don't really know the final destination. But obviously this seems to coordinate with what you've been reporting about fighting now on the outskirts of Baghdad, and the Pentagon acknowledging that the first stages of the battle around that capital has begun.

We are pushing forward, but we are not alone. This highway has been filled with military activity for the past several days, all of it moving north, whether it be things like tanks and armored personnel carriers and Marines, or whether it be the vital supplies they need, such as the fuel, the ammunition, and the food -- all of that has been rolling, almost nonstop, day and night, up this highway. The only thing that comes south are the empty trucks that need to once again refuel, reload, and keep driving it forward.

So we are on the move. And for the Marines of this unit, we know that that is probably good news as far as their mood, not that they didn't believe that what they were doing, security-wise, was important. Clearly they want to be a part of a big fight, if there is going to be one.

And now that they are moving, it makes them probably hopeful that they will be involved, and they know that in order to get home, which is where they want to be, Baghdad is the place they've got to go through or go near, Daryn.

KAGAN: Couple questions for you, Marty. First of all, of course, there's no such thing as a day or two off in the middle of this conflict. So what has this unit been doing as it has been stationary over the last two days?

SAVIDGE: Well, unlike other Marine units, say, to the southeast, which have been involved in fighting from the beginning, this unit has had sort of sporadic fighting incidences. For the most part, what it had been doing on its security detail was going out and surveying and going into nearby towns and villages, believing that these could be hiding places for some of these paramilitary units, or the death squads, as the Pentagon has labeled them.

So they would plan, reconnoiter, and then usually hit these villages very early in the morning, at first light, going in prepared for a fight, and seldom, if ever, finding any. Instead, what they found were large humanitarian needs by the local population.

The villagers, of course, leery, fearful at first, seeing this military might roll into their small towns. But the clear attitude of the Marines was not to kick in doors, not to point rifles, but to seek out the village elders or the leader in the community and sit down and talk with him. They find that they get a great deal more insight that way.

So it was more meeting and greeting and dealing with what the needs of the villagers were than it was fighting and shooting.

But, of course, there is always that potential. And each time they visited a new site, whether it be a village or an industrial complex, they treated it as if there could have been hostiles inside. Fortunately, they haven't met any, Daryn.

KAGAN: Martin Savidge, on the move with the Marines in central Iraq. Thank you, Marty. I'll have to save my questions for -- additional questions for later.

We have other embedded reporters we want to check in with, and Anderson's going to do that right now -- Anderson.

COOPER: Yes, Daryn, thanks very much.

We're trying to cover this offensive that seems to be under way from as many angles as possible.

We are joined now by Karl Penhaul, who is in central Iraq. Karl, what can you tell us?


Yes, Apache attack helicopters of the 11th Aviation Regiment have seen action from early this morning. They're flying in a region north of the city of Karbala (UNINTELLIGIBLE) tanks and Bradley fighting vehicles of the 3rd Infantry Division.

Overnight, U.S. commanders here told me that the 3rd Infantry Division moved into Karbala. There was fighting there. And units now of the 3rd Infantry Division have in fact pushed through Karbala and are rolling across a region of arable land towards the southern outskirts of Baghdad.

Commanders here say that surprisingly, resistance in and around Karbala was lighter than expected. They said there was fighting, there certainly were Iraqi vehicles and artillery emplacements destroyed, and they also tell me that a number of Iraqi -- or a large number of Iraqi POWs are handing themselves in.

Surprisingly, though, U.S. commanders here are telling me that many of the Iraqi POWs surrendering are claiming to have been from the border guards unit, not from the elite Republican Guards unit. Earlier on in the week, military intelligence was showing that the defenders of Karbala and the towns around that region were Republican Guards from the Medina Division.

Now there seems to be a great question mark following the surrender of these POWs as to whether, in fact, these men are posing as border guards to engage some of the attention of the U.S. forces, or whether, in fact, the Republican Guard may have withdrawn to other defensive positions.

But that fighting's still going on, Anderson, and is predicted to carry on certainly through much of the day, like I say, involving ground elements from the 3rd Infantry Division and air support from the 11th Aviation Regiment, the Apache attack helicopters, Anderson.

COOPER: So Karl, and I know you are limited in what you can say about an ongoing action, I understand that, so use your judgment on this, but I just wanted to get a sense, are the helicopters that you are with, are they involved in close air support, in terms of targeting individuals on the ground, or are they looking to take out equipment? Don't know if you can say it.

PENHAUL: Both, Anderson, really. They have already destroyed some troop carriers that have been on the ground, some trucks that have been on the ground. But as the tanks move forward, it's kind of a (UNINTELLIGIBLE), what the Apache attack helicopters don't take out, then the tanks, the Bradley fighting vehicles, will. It's really a bit of a question of how far the Iraqi target lies from the advancing U.S. front line, Anderson.

COOPER: Karl, how much warning did the unit you were with get that something was going to be happening?

PENHAUL: This has been planned for days. They do have advance warning. This wasn't a battle that suddenly erupted, it wasn't a reactive -- it wasn't U.S. forces reacting to something the Iraqi forces had done. These are planned operations, and as such, the missions for the Apache attack helicopters have been (UNINTELLIGIBLE) planned over a number of days.

Also, the missions that the other Apache attack helicopter units will be carrying out is likewise planned. They obviously don't all join the battle, they don't all join the fighting at the same time. While one unit is fighting, others may be providing security, carrying out reconnaissance missions elsewhere.

But certainly, this battle for the (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to take the so-called Karbala gap has been planned for many days, and it is seen as a major push on the way to the outskirts of Baghdad, because this region was crisscrossed with river crossing points, with major highways. And so seeing it as a major obstacle that U.S. forces had to cross before they could advance to the southern outskirts of Baghdad, Anderson.

COOPER: And explain the significance of the Karbala gap. Is it just that, that it is one of the crossings that you have to go over in order to get to Baghdad?

PENHAUL: If one looks at it on a map, there is -- the U.S. forces here are describing it as part of one of the circles of defense around Baghdad. It's one of the outer circles of Baghdad -- outer circles of defense, admittedly. But if you look on a map, then you have Karbala, you have another town, Al-Illah (ph). Further along, you have the town of Kut.

All along this area, there are strategic river crossing points. There are a number of highways. That's what makes it easier for the Iraqi forces to defend, because they more or less have an idea of where the U.S. forces will try to push through.

Also, U.S. military intelligence has been saying all along that the lines between Karbala and Kut is the so-called red line. This is the line beyond which, if U.S. and coalition forces push beyond that line, that allegedly Saddam Hussein, President Saddam Hussein, has ordered his troops to use chemical weapons on advancing U.S. forces. There is no evidence of that yet, no signs that in any of the battles overnight and this morning, that chemical warheads or biological warheads have been fired at any of the coalition troops. Even among the U.S. military intelligence folks here, there is some doubt as to whether this is the real red line at this stage, and whether that order still holds up from Saddam Hussein to use those chemical weapons, Anderson.

COOPER: All right, we're going to let you go here, Karl. Karl Penhaul, good luck. Army 5th Corps, 11th Attack Helicopter Regiment.

We'll try to check in with him a little bit later on. We are also going to be following this story very closely over the next several hours, so you'll want to stay with us for that.

Moving on to our other major story at this hour, the Pentagon says Army Private First Class Jessica Lynch has been through, and I quote, "quite an ordeal." The 19-year-old soldier, listed as missing in action, was rescued from an Iraqi hospital in Nasiriyah, a hospital, I should point out, occupied by the paramilitary group Saddam Fedayeen.

U.S. Marines staged an offensive as a diversion, and U.S. special forces went in to get her. Lynch had apparently been shot several times.

Now, we have just learned from Reuters, Reuters quoting a Captain Jay LaRosa (ph), who's a spokesman for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit, said that Lynch had two broken legs and one broken arm. This is the latest information we just got just a moment ago, two broken legs and one broken arm, but was stable and in good condition. This Reuters quoting a Captain Jay LaRosa, spokesman for the 15th Marine Expeditionary Unit.

Lynch's father, in Palestine, West Virginia, had this to say about her rescue.


UNIDENTIFIED MALE: Nine days of not knowing. What was the feeling when you got the word?

GREG LYNCH, FATHER OF PFC JESSICA LYNCH: Rejoice. I can't express what it was. Couldn't talk. And we're just glad it happened.


COOPER: Quite an understatement, I'm sure, just glad it happened.

Our Chris Plante updates us now from the Pentagon. Chris, what have you got?


The raid took place at that hospital near Nasiriyah just after sunset. And as you said, there was a Marine diversion activity going on when U.S. special forces, and it was apparently a combined force of Navy SEALs, Marine Corps special forces, and possibly some Army special forces, it would be a classic Delta Force kind of exercise, told it was a classic kick-the-door-down kind of special operations movement.

They had this hospital in their sights because they believed that a ranking Iraqi official, a military official known as Chemical Ali, may have been at this site. It's not clear now whether he was captured at this location or not, but there were apparently some Iraqis, at least, taken in this raid.

There are reports, unconfirmed at this point, but there may have been American bodies there. But that's not clear.

Jessica Lynch, 19 years old, missing since the 23rd after an ambush of her column, five or her cohorts were taken prisoner. We've seen them on television out of Baghdad. And Jessica was one of a number missing from that episode.

Obviously people here at the Pentagon very happy, at least, to have her back, and not in great shape, but it looks like she's going to be OK in the end, and that's the best news that can be offered up at this point, Anderson.

COOPER: Any word on this search for Chemical Ali? I know nothing has been announced. Is there a sense that it's still ongoing, or is it simply unknown at this point?

PLANTE: Well, it's not clear, certainly from here, at this point. We have had word from a number of our reporters in the area that the hunt has been going on for some time now.

Ali Hassan al-Magid (ph) is a cousin of Saddam Hussein's. He is in charge of security for southern Iraq at this point. He's famous for and known as Chemical Ali because he was in charge of the gassing of -- with chemical weapons of the Kurdish population in northern Iraq in 1988, and he is generally perceived by the U.S. military as being a bad character.

If he has not been captured, certainly it's ongoing, but we're waiting for more.

COOPER: And as you point out, a cousin of Saddam Hussein. And one of these people sent down from Baghdad to take over a region of control. Obviously it would be a major target of U.S. military interest. Chris -- Go ahead.

PLANTE: Right. It would be, obviously, a major target in the south, where there's been a lot of disruption of supply lines, and the Fedayeen has been very active down there. These people are apparently under his control right now. As you'd want to decapitate Baghdad, was tried early on, you'd certainly want to try to take out the leadership in the south too, and that's been a priority.

COOPER: All right. Chris Plante at the Pentagon, we'll check in with you shortly.

Let's go now to Daryn Kagan in Kuwait City -- Daryn.

KAGAN: Anderson, let's get back to the story of the rescue of Private Jessica Lynch. I understand we have more information from our Tom Mintier. He is standing by at Central Command in Doha, Qatar.

Tom, hello.

TOM MINTIER, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Daryn if there is a barometer of how things are going here, when things go quiet, it usually means things are about to happen. That was the situation definitely yesterday as this operation was in its planning stages.

General Tommy Franks, the CentCom commander, was the one who supposedly ordered this rescue mission of Private First Class Jessica Lange, a 19-year-old U.S. Army soldier who was in the hospital and apparently taken out in the first few minutes of the raid.

Now, again, this leaves seven POWs, including two Apache helicopter pilots, still listed officially as POWs. They have been seen, but apparently not yet seen by the Red Cross, so waiting for that.

The announcement came in the middle of the night here at CentCom headquarters. The man who usually gives the briefings in the middle of the afternoon was burning the midnight oil. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks made a very short announcement to the press here on the overnight shift at the press center that the U.S. POW had been rescued.


BRIG. GEN. VINCENT BROOKS, U.S. CENTRAL COMMAND: Coalition forces have conducted a successful rescue mission of a U.S. Army prisoner of war held captive in Iraq. The soldier has been returned to a coalition-controlled area. More details will be released as soon as possible. Thank you very much.


MINTIER: I apologize, it's Jessica Lynch, to all her family in West Virginia.

I'm sure they're not sleeping tonight. As Chris Plante said, the word was out she did have the ability to communicate to her parents. They have talked to her. Not sure yet whether she will be airlifted to Germany for treatment, but apparently the family making preparations to fly to Germany if that, indeed, does take place.

So again, PFC Jessica Lynch, a 19-year-old supply clerk, has been rescued by a special operation inside Iraq at a hospital in Nasiriyah. They went in with a diversionary tactic, managed to pick her up, and several other people, but we're not getting much information about them. A lot of information about this private first class. President Bush was told at about 5:00 in the afternoon Eastern standard time that this operation had been successful. His comment reportedly was, "That's great."

Back to you, Daryn.

KAGAN: It is great indeed.

Tom, I heard some reports that actually this rescue was videotaped, and the military might plan on showing that videotape later on. Have you heard anything about that?

MINTIER: We haven't heard. But it's quite possible that we may see this this afternoon at the daily briefing. There is a background briefing this morning on the issue of humanitarian assistance into Iraq, so we may see the pictures of this raid, if not this afternoon, possibly the next day. But it's something that everybody is asking for here at the coalition media center.

KAGAN: And give us a time check again about the next CentCom briefing from Doha?

MINTIER: The next CentCom briefing will probably be in about four and a half hours. We expect it 7:00 a.m. Eastern time. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks is the usual briefer. We've been given no indications that it's going to be anyone else. But it's quite possible that General Tommy Franks could come to talk about this good news overnight.

KAGAN: All right, Tom Mintier in Doha, Qatar, thank you very much. When that briefing does begin, of course, our viewers will see it live right here on CNN.

Want to go over some of the numbers that Tom was mentioning there about the number of missing Americans. Even with the rescue of Jessica Lynch, there still are 15 American soldiers missing in action, seven others are prisoners of war. By contrast, coalition officials report they have captured 8,000 Iraqi soldiers.

A total of 72 coalition troops have been killed during the war, 38 U.S. soldiers have died in combat, including Lance Corporal Patrick Nixon. He had been missing for seven days. His remains were recovered Sunday in Nasiriyah. Eight others have been lost in noncombat situations.

And on the British side, six have died in battle, while three times as many have died from accidents or from friendly fire. It's still to be determined what caused two other British deaths. Helicopter crashes in the war's first two days claimed the lives of 14 British soldiers.

And with that, we'll take a quick break from here in Kuwait City. Much more from here ahead, as well as with Anderson back in the States.


KAGAN: Welcome back here to Kuwait City.

Joined by a guest who's been joining us over the last couple of days, and that is Saad al-Ajmi. He is the former Kuwaiti information minister, has spent a lot of time in the United States, has a very interesting perspective on things here in Kuwait and the Arab world, as well as back in the U.S.

Thank you, thanks for coming back to see us.


KAGAN: Good to have you with us.

What is the impression here in Kuwait, would you say, of how the war is going so far?

AL-AJMI: Well, as I said, I mean, the Kuwaitis, you know, it's a small nation. They are walking sort of a tightrope here. They don't want the war, but they want to get rid of Saddam. But now they are beginning to realize that they cannot have both, you know.

KAGAN: The Kuwaitis, I hear, talk to on the streets here and the malls, or who are here in the hotels or in the restaurants, I get the sense that they do want the war, that they do support the war, and that -- even if that's what it takes to remove Saddam Hussein.

AL-AJMI: Yes, especially then when it's broke out, you know, then the mood change. And that -- now that -- since it's begun, and Kuwait has been the only launch pad for this operation, they might as well just finish the job and not let -- leave us here in the cold, you know. Therefore they are now supportive of the United States. That's why, you know, all the troops that were not allowed to go through Turkey are now coming through Kuwait again...

KAGAN: Right.

AL-AJMI: ... and you find all this support.

And there is also sort of a moral, you know, kind of dilemma that the Kuwaitis would be in. It would be selfish and immoral for the Kuwaitis to say it's OK for the United States to have led an international alliance to liberate us from Saddam 12 years ago, but it's not OK for the United States to do the same thing for the Iraqi people and liberate them from Saddam.

Because it's the same Saddam, you know.

KAGAN: It is the same Saddam. But it's a different type of dilemma for the Kuwaiti people, because you have an alliance, an allegiance to the United States and the British, perhaps, but within the Arab world, this is a very different opinion than most Arabs have.

AL-AJMI: Well, I think that that should actually give credit to the Kuwaitis, the fact that they believe in what they believe in, and they stick by it, and they stick to their allies. On the other hand, you know, the fact that they are more supportive -- if there are more supporters of wrong than right, this does not turn right into wrong and wrong into right.

KAGAN: But let's talk about what we're seeing in the Arab world, especially in the media. You're seeing protests in Arab countries that are larger than demonstrations they've seen, perhaps, if ever. The front page of the newspaper, the two newspapers here in Kuwait City, they -- day after day, they feature images, and we have, I think, pictures of what we saw today, images of children who have been impacted by this war.

AL-AJMI: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) English dailies.

KAGAN: Yes, the English dailies, that's what you see, yes.

AL-AJMI: (UNINTELLIGIBLE). Well, I think that generally the Arab world, the media is just a manifestation of the dictatorships that are predominant in this region. And it's very hard, actually, to gauge the genuine point of view or the genuine public opinion of the people, because we know that most of these Arab capitals are run by dictatorships and by intelligence services.

Take, for instance, the demonstrations in Libya against the Kuwaiti embassy. You know, some vandals went there and they vandalized the Kuwaiti embassy. And you wonder why didn't they go to the British embassy, for example. The Kuwaitis are supportive of the war, they are supportive logistically, they are supportive diplomatically and politically. But they are not actually in actual combat, although they are being, you know, shot at by the missiles of Saddam Hussein.

The British are the second-largest, you know, participant militarily in this campaign. Yet the British embassy was not attacked. You know, so you sort of like wonder sometimes.

And as I said, you know, I think that the media here, the Arabic media as a whole, has actually been sort of an indication of how this region generally needs some sort of revival in terms of, you know, shocking them and telling them what's going on in the world.

If you read the U.N. Development Report of last year, it's appalling figures of underdevelopment of this region, when it comes especially to human development and to freedom and freedom of expression and democracy.

KAGAN: Real quickly, final question, I have to ask you about the mood here in Kuwait City. It had been almost casual until the missile landed into the Sharq Mall in the middle of town. Do you think Kuwaitis' attitude about what -- about the potential danger from Iraq has changed since Saturday?

Al-AJMI: All along, actually, they feel that since the 2nd of August of 1990 they have been in a state of war with Saddam -- or Saddam has actually declared a state -- you know, a war on them. And what their attitude is to -- is -- what is worse than war is to live under constant threat of war, as what's been happening for as long as Saddam has in power.

KAGAN: So at least something is happening now.


KAGAN: Saad Al-Ajmi, thank you for joining us, stopping by again.

Al-AJMI: Thank you.

KAGAN: You'll have to do it again very soon.

AJ-AMI: We'll do it again.

KAGAN: Appreciate your time. Too short, but we'll take it.



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