Return to Transcripts main page

American Morning

Looking Into Operation Swarmer; Public Doubtful of War; Tracing the O'Brien Name

Aired March 17, 2006 - 08:00   ET


I'm Miles O'Brien.


We've got the latest exclusive pictures out of Iraq. U.S. troops in the biggest air operation since the beginning of the war three years ago.

And there's Bob Franken for us.


We're in Annapolis, Maryland.

You can see the yachts behind me. A lot of people live on these boats and they have opinions about the war in Iraq.

That's coming up.


M. O'BRIEN: Ouch!

A horrific crash and a special on board camera does what it is designed to do -- make an indisputable, and in this case, harrowing record.

A break in the weather in Texas, finally. And now, a survey of a terrible toll. A million acres charred. Ten thousand head of cattle gone. Eleven people are dead.

S. O'BRIEN: And nearly seven months after being separated by Hurricane Katrina, a little girl -- there she is in the middle of that big hug -- is finally back in the arms of her family.

We're going to talk to all of them live on this AMERICAN MORNING.

Welcome back, everybody.

Let's get straight to Iraq and that major military offensive that is underway this morning north of Baghdad. It's called Operation Swarmer. It's now in its second day.

Nine hundred U.S. and Iraqi troops are involved. That is down from 1,500 military carried aboard 50 helicopters. And the operation got its start on Thursday.

The mission is described as the largest air assault in Iraq since the U.S. invasion there three years ago this Sunday. It's happening around the town of Samarra, about 75 miles north of the capital.

Let's get right to our senior international correspondent, Nic Robertson.

He's just back from Samarra this morning -- Nic, you were the only television reporter on the ground there.

What did you see?

NIC ROBERTSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT: We were taken to a farmhouse, where it was being searched by Iraqi and U.S. troops. We have seen these type of searches before. What made this different was the fact that the Iraqi Army soldiers had armored Humvees. They were deployed with the U.S. troops.

The commander there told us that the operation had been conducted with both troops together. The planning stages of the operation had been planned out together. He told us the way, when they approached the farmhouse, the Iraqi troops went in first to talk with the family there before the searching began.

He also told -- we were also taken to a second location, a command post jointly manned by Iraqi and U.S. troops. Again, the difference that we saw there from Iraqi troops we've seen on other operations, they were all in the same uniform, again, with the armored Humvees. We also saw them operating in tandem with the U.S. troops, spotting vehicles using binoculars on the horizon, telling the U.S. troops to -- if they can bring in a helicopter to check the vehicle to see if it was leaving the area.

This was, from what we could see, a joint operation, perhaps more joint than those that we've seen in the past -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Let me ask you another question, Nic, then.

How long has this operation been in the planning?

Do you know?

ROBERTSON: It's been in the planning for over a month, we're told. Now, Iraqi intelligence says that some of the people who were involved in blowing up that holy Shia shrine in the town of Samarra several weeks ago were from that area.

But U.S. commanders told us that the operation had been in -- been under planning before the attack on that particular shrine. They said that they had worked up from working with small groups of soldiers, platoon level, to do this joint brigade operation -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Nic Robertson for us this morning, just returning. The only reporter on the ground covering this attack. Thanks, Nic -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: That campaign north of Baghdad comes with the president under political siege for the way this war has unfolded for nearly three years now.

Suzanne Malveaux at the White House with more -- good morning, Suzanne.


This attack, of course, comes at a time when the administration and this president very much engaged in an aggressive public relations campaign to try to win the American people over to stick with this Iraq mission. And, of course, a series of speeches the president's delivering leading up to the third anniversary of the Iraq war.

Now, yesterday a lot of questions about the timing of this attack. The White House rejecting the notion that somehow it was connected to this public relations campaign. They say it's a decision that was made by commanders on the ground, that the president did not sign off on it beforehand, that this is something that was not politically coordinated or motivated.

President Bush last night, at a Republican fundraiser, talked a little bit, in general themes, about that notion of making decisions based on politics.


GEORGE W. BUSH, PRESIDENT OF THE UNITED STATES: In order to achieve victory in Iraq, that we will rely upon the wisdom of our commanders on the ground. As Iraqis stand up, we will stand down and the troop levels in Iraq will not be decided by artificial timetables set in Washington, D.C. but by our commanders on the ground.


MALVEAUX: And, Miles, expected to hear more of the same from the president on Monday. He is traveling to Cleveland, Ohio. That is where he is going to be delivering another one of those speeches in that series, of course, saying that he believes that there is progress that is being made politically as well as militarily -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Thank you very much.

Suzanne Malveaux at the we hope so.

In just a few moments, we'll check in with retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd, our military analyst, and we'll ask him about the strategy behind this. He says, in some ways, this is a symbolic campaign. But the symbolism, he says, is important.

Let's check the headlines now.

Carol Costello in the newsroom -- good morning, Carol.


In Maryland, closing arguments are set in the court martial having to do with alleged abuses at the Abu Ghraib Prison in Iraq. Sergeant Michael Smith is the Army dog handler accused of abusing detainees at the prison. Smith faces more than 24 years in prison if convicted on all counts.

On New York's Long Island, a highway crash snarled traffic this morning. Check out this charter bus dashboard camera.


COSTELLO: There you see it. Pretty frightening. Eight people on board the bus were hurt, along with the driver of the car hit by that overweight tractor trailer. No injuries are life-threatening, believe it or not. Everybody is going to be OK.

A possible break for firefighters in Texas. Rain could come as early as today. The state's governor, Rick Perry, toured hard hit areas on Thursday, calling the scene devastating. At least 11 people died from the fires and more than one million acres have now burned.

And these people, well, they're feeling the luck of the Irish on this Saint Patty's Day. It's a contest in Salt Lake City, Utah. And you can see they're jumping into a pool of green. We think it's Jell- O. We hope so. And they're bobbing for limes that had numbers printed on them. The winner apparently gets concert tickets to see Faith Hill and Tim McGraw. Well worth it, I think -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Wow! It looks cold, and green, and a little slimy. But you're right. Faith Hill! Tim McGraw!


S. O'BRIEN: Yes, that's worth it.

All right, Carol, thanks.

Weather now at six minutes past the hour.

Chad has got that -- good morning.

CHAD MYERS, CNN METEOROLOGIST: I think it needed a few more packs of Jell-O to make it solid.

S. O'BRIEN: I know. It wasn't jelling, really, if you think about it.

MYERS: No. It looked like the river in Chicago, really, just a little piece.

S. O'BRIEN: Pretty much.

MYERS: Good morning, everybody. (WEATHER REPORT)

S. O'BRIEN: Sunday marks the third anniversary of the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq back in 2003 and most Americans now, if you look at the polls, unhappy with the way the war is being handled. The latest CNN/"USA Today"/Gallup poll shows only 38 percent of Americans believe that things are going well in Iraq. Sixty percent say things are going poorly.

AMERICAN MORNING'S Bob Franken in Annapolis, Maryland this morning -- hey, Bob, good morning again.

FRANKEN: Good morning, Soledad.

We are in a section of Annapolis they call Ego Alley because of the beautiful boats that are parked here. A lot of people live on their boats, including the people we're going to speak to in this hour.

We're talking now with Cheri Edwards.

Cheri lives on a 37-foot catamaran called the Valivo (ph). I'd love to live on this myself.

Let's talk about the war. It's three years old now. I'm curious about how your opinion about it has evolved.

CHERI EDWARDS, ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND RESIDENT: It's hard to really know what to think about the war, because one side says one thing and their opponents say something else and you're not sure how much of it is self-serving.

I kind of -- regardless of whether we should have been there in the first place, I think we need to finish what we started.

FRANKEN: Really?

EDWARDS: It's a hard issue.


FRANKEN: But there's a sort of a state of confusion that you...

EDWARDS: Definitely. Yes. I don't know who to believe. I don't know what to think. And all of the finger pointing doesn't help.

FRANKEN: You're living here and also somebody else who lives here has a very personal involvement right now, a personal involvement in the war. We're talking about -- we're talking about Ed Cave, who lives on the Blythe Spirit (ph), which is a 40-foot powerboat parked right by here.

Ed, your son just came back from the war.

ED CAVE, ANNAPOLIS, MARYLAND RESIDENT: Yes, that's right. And I just thank god that he came back alive and it's a wonderful feeling to have him back in the States.

FRANKEN: How do you feel about the war?

CAVE: Well, like with Cheri, there's a lot of conflicting -- I don't have enough evidence to actually -- enough facts to come to a strong opinion. You hear one thing and you kind of side with that. And then you hear something else and you want to side with that.

So as far as a strong opinion, I don't have one at the moment.

FRANKEN: It's been three years.

Has your opinion, whatever it is by now, has it evolved over that three years?

CAVE: Yes. I think initially it was stronger that it would be a good thing to do what we were doing. But then as the facts came out, it didn't look quite so good. So now it's a little, a little hazy.

FRANKEN: And what about your son?

Does he -- does he express opinions about it?

CAVE: No. The field he's in, he's not allowed to do much of that.

FRANKEN: But your overriding opinion, I'm sure, is you're glad he's back.

CAVE: Oh, definitely. Definitely. And I thank god that he is alive, that he's fine.

FRANKEN: Were you worried?

CAVE: Oh, yes. I prayed for him a lot and he's back home safe with his family.

FRANKEN: So what you're hearing here, Soledad, is something that you really notice, people have confusion about the war. They get, sometimes, perplexed by the politicians and their feelings and their confusions have just evolved and perhaps intensified over the three year period -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Bob Franken for us this morning.

Bob, thanks -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Still to come on the program, a closer look at the military strategy behind Operation Swarmer. We'll talk to retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd.

Then, a touching story for you. A 4-year-old is reunited with her parents seven months after Katrina. We'll talk to the whole family. Get your Kleenexes out for this one, folks. This is going to be something. We'll tell you about this amazing journey which put them back together there. And hugging each other like crazy. And our Irish genes are a smiling today. We O'Briens are celebrating our roots, along the rest of you Irish-Americans out there listening. We're exploring the history of the O'Brien name. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING.


M. O'BRIEN: The U.S. death toll continues to climb in Iraq. Two thousand three hundred and eleven Americans have died since the war began. At least 1,808 of them lost their lives as a result directly of hostile action.

That operation that is underway 75 miles north of Baghdad continues today. We heard just a few moments ago, Retired General Bernard Trainor describing the entire operation as perhaps more hype than anything else.

Let's bring in another general now and get his assessment of what it's all about.

Joining us now from Tucson, Arizona, a familiar face to our viewers, retired Air Force Major General Don Shepperd. General Shepperd, good to have you with us this morning.

General Trainor says it's more hype than anything, that we're saying -- making more of this than it is.

What do you think?

MAJ. GEN. DON SHEPPERD, U.S. AIR FORCE (RET.): Well, I think there's a little bit of truth in that, Miles.

But if you're cynical, you're going to say that this was all a staged operation around the opening of the Iraqi parliament or President Bush's sagging poll numbers.

I don't believe that. I think this has been staged for a long time -- in the planning stages for a long time. I think it's a step in the evolution of the Iraqi security forces learning how to do an air assault operation, something they're going to need in the future, after the United States departs.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, so there is -- but this -- you must say that there is a little bit of symbolism here. Whether you say it's staged or not, I guess it depends on how you look at it. But there's the symbolism of Iraqi troops and U.S. troops side by side here.

SHEPPERD: Yes. There's some important symbolism here. And not only just the troops working side by side and learning how to work together, but this is an important step for the Iraqi people to see their Iraqi security forces taken over. They have an ability to do things that we don't, which is routing out the terrorists. They can see them a mile away, whereas we have a heck of a lot more trouble.

They can also stay in these areas. They can also go into houses and that type of thing and look for weapons caches in a way that we can't do, and in a way that's less obtrusive than American forces.

So having the Iraqi people, a lot of whom have their finger in the air to see which way the wind is going to blow and who's going to win in this struggle, to see Iraqi security forces operating and taking charge of various areas, that's an important step for this new government in Iraq to gain the confidence of the people.

M. O'BRIEN: OK, so part symbolism, part training exercise, as you put it.

In the final analysis, though, if you're really going after insurgents, is this the kind of strategy you would use?

SHEPPERD: This is the kind of strategy you would use. But you would probably do it with much more surprise and much less planning and on a rapid basis; in other words, kind of a rapid reaction force.

The Iraqi security forces are not there yet. They're still operating side by side with U.S. forces, learning how to do this. And, again, it's a step in their evolution, and an important one, I believe.

M. O'BRIEN: What does it say about the whole situation in Iraq in general -- and you were there just this past fall -- that on the three year -- approaching the three year anniversary of the invasion, this sort of operation needs to even be contemplated?

SHEPPERD: Yes. This is a tough, ugly place over there, a very, very difficult neighborhood. Insurgents were operating freely in places like Falluja and in western Iraq. They're being put under pressure more and more by Iraqi security forces. The number of Iraqi security forces, the quality, the equipment, is increasing dramatically.

This, again, this operation is just one example of a step in that evolution.

So the country is by no means stable. The people are waiting to see what's going to happen. The Sunnis and the Shia conflict is still there. It's a very difficult place. But, again, I have confidence that over time, the Iraqi security forces will be able to do better the things that need to be done, which is find insurgents and stay in areas where the U.S. forces are not able to do that and where the U.S. -- when the U.S. forces are going to be coming home.

M. O'BRIEN: Let's do a little Monday morning quarterbacking. You and I, we spent the whole invasion together talking about what was going on, the strategy and the tactics. The chairman of the joint chiefs, Richard Myers, resigned just a little while ago. He told Soledad there were so many mistakes. He didn't get into them, but lots of mistakes.

As you look back on it, as you watched it, do you see anything you missed? Was there some key point that you wish you had a do-over on? SHEPPERD: Yes, exactly. I think that the main key point was that we all underestimated the insurgency out there. We all underestimated the difficulty of maintaining security in Iraq after the combat phase came to a halt. We clearly did not have the number of troops required and necessary to maintain that security.

But, hey, we had 500,000 troops. There would have been a big push to bring them home as soon as possible because combat is over, the cost of the war is high.

So, again, nobody foresaw what this insurgency was going to do or the difficulty. We listened too much to the expatriates that said the people will flock into the streets with flowers to welcome you. That was clearly the big mistake.

Arguably, there was a mistake in basically disbanding the Iraqi Army. Former Ambassador Bremer would say that the Army simply disappeared, was not there and was a symbol that had to be defeated.

Well, perhaps there were ways to vet that Army and bring more security quicker to Iraq.

Those are the two big mistakes I see.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, good insights.

And, by the way, we should point out, General Shepperd has a book out, which is just skyrocketing through the Amazon rankings. It's called "Bury Us Upside Down." It is the story of the Misty pilots of World War -- World War! I'm not going to put you that far back -- of the Vietnam War.

General, in a nutshell, describe Misty. It was an extremely dangerous mission.

SHEPPERD: Yes, a group of 157 pilots, 34 of us shot down, seven killed, four POWs. We launched from South Vietnam into North Vietnam with smoke rockets to find targets at low level, SAM missile sites, truck parks, ammunition depots and mark them for bomb-laden fighters.

This book focuses on what happens to the families of the guys we lost. It's a great book, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: You might as well have painted a target on yourselves for what you did. And we salute you all. And it's a book worth checking out.

Don Shepperd, major general, military analyst for us, always a pleasure to have you with us.

SHEPPERD: A pleasure, Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Much more on Operation Swarmer is ahead this morning, including the very latest from Nic Robertson, the only television reporter on the ground near Samarra.

Also, after almost seven months -- take a look at this. Oh, what a joyful reunion. The last child recorded as missing by the Center for Missing and Exploited Children in the wake of Hurricane Katrina now found and reunited with her mom and five siblings. We've got their amazing story coming up this morning.


S. O'BRIEN: A new way for celebrity gawkers to follow the stars is scaring the daylights out of some celebrities.

Entertainment correspondent Brooke Anderson explains.



UNIDENTIFIED SINGER: I always feel that somebody's watching me.


BROOKE ANDERSON, CNN CORRESPONDENT (voice-over): This latest innovation in celebrity watching is supposed to be fun. But already there are concerns that it threatens the privacy and possibly the safety of celebrities across the nation.

Here's how it works. If you're out and about and see, say, George Clooney at Starbucks, e-mail his location to and immediately it's posted online, even with a map.

Within hours after Gawker Stalker launched earlier this week, the famous and those who represent them cried foul, worried it gives dangerous stalkers dangerous information.

HOWARD BRAGMAN, FOUNDER, FIFTEENMINUTES.COM: It's of real concern. We look at what happened to John Lennon. We're not talking about, you know, hypothetical here. We're talking about real.

ANDERSON: maintains that the celebrities' information is already out there and they're not to blame.

JESSICA COEN, COEDITOR, GAWKER.COM: If you found out George Clooney were getting a cup of Starbucks, had the time to click your Web site, run downstairs, get to that Starbucks and inflict bodily harm, I think that's something that not any single Web site can take the blame for.

ANDERSON: Tell that to actress Jane Seymour. There she is posted on Gawker Stalker Tuesday, after being spotted the Museum of Modern Art in New York.

JANE SEYMOUR, ACTRESS: Very, very, very creepy. I mean I was at MOMA, yes. I went there and I went to see the Munsch. But that's, that's scary. That's very scary. And I've had death threats, you know, a long time ago. But it's -- this is not a small thing, you know? This -- there are crazies out there and crazy stuff does happen. And this whole real time thing is -- something bad will happen.

ANDERSON (on camera): What if something bad did happen? Many are concerned that could give stalkers the information they need in real time to go after celebrities. If that happened, could Gawker be responsible?

SHERWIN SIY, ELECTRONIC PRIVACY INFORMATION CENTER: It doesn't seem like it. First of all, they're reporting truthful information, so there's no accu -- no defamation case there. And what they're reporting isn't an incitement to violence. They're basically doing what tabloids have done for centuries.

ANDERSON (voice-over): Except that now everyone can be a paparazzi. Real people have just joined the race for the latest celebrity scoop.

Brooke Anderson, CNN, New York.


S. O'BRIEN: Coming up this morning, we're going to introduce you to a family that has closed the door, really, on a statistic that was troubling all of us -- the number of missing children in the wake of Hurricane Katrina. All resolved with that little girl's discovery, Cortez, right there.

Hi, Cortez.

We're going to talk to her mom and her godmother and Cortez, just ahead.

She says they're mentioning my name, mommy.

That's ahead.

Stay with us.

We'll be right with them.


S. O'BRIEN: A pretty incredible family reunion to tell you about.

Four-year-old Cortez Stewart, separated from her parents ever since Hurricane Katrina hit New Orleans. Now, seven months later, a very happy ending to this story with the discovery -- look at this family reunion. With the discovery of little Cortez, now, 5,192 missing children reported in Hurricane Katrina, each and every one has been resolved, those cases.

Let's tell you more about this amazing family reunion.

Let's get right to it. We've got Cortez's mother, Lisa Stewart; also, Cortez's godmother, Felicia Williams and Cortez Stewart herself.

Nice to see all of you.

Thanks for talking with us.

Let me -- let me back up and kind of get into what happened the day of the storm.

Lisa, you had the five kids. I have a 4-year-old so I know that Cortez is going to chat with you during the whole interview. Don't worry about it.

You and the five kids were able to evacuate, eventually, out of the house and you spent four days on an overpass with the kids while you waited to be helped. Eventually you were rescued, evacuated out, ended up in the Superdome and then eventually ended up in -- I'm sorry, the Astrodome. And eventually ended up in Houston. And that's where your story was.

Of course, you were missing your best friend and Cortez's godmother and Cortez herself.

Your heart must have just been ripped out of your body.


S. O'BRIEN: What did you do?

L. STEWART: It was devastating.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, gosh, I can't even imagine. What did you do for the seven months that she was missing? How did you try to find her, Lisa?

L. STEWART: Well, besides trying to work with all the agencies who, you know, considered themselves supportive, you know, I did every possible measure that I could possibly do. First they went (UNINTELLIGIBLE) through the Red Cross and all and FEMA and missing persons and, you know, and kept faith, hope and knew that there is a god and, you know, that he was going to make things work out for the better.

S. O'BRIEN: November comes...

L. STEWART: Just basically kept faith.

S. O'BRIEN: November comes and Cortez's birthday comes, as well. Was there a point you thought maybe she didn't survive? Maybe I'm not getting in touch with her because she didn't make it? And Felicia didn't make it either?

L. STEWART: Well, before the restriction was lifted, and I had no way to actually search back in New Orleans to find out who made it and who didn't, it was a lot harder then, you know? S. O'BRIEN: Felicia, let me ask you a couple of questions. You were with Cortez. You go to a hotel, because you guys are looking for higher ground to get to as the water starts rising. Eventually you're evacuated, as well, to the airport and then eventually you go to your family members in Atlanta -- I know, it's early, Cortez. Hang in there with us. You must have been just petrified that your best friend and her five kids maybe didn't survive the storm, as well.

FELICIA WILLIAMS, CORTEZ'S GODMOTHER: Yes, I was very petrified, terrified, afraid that, you know, the kids and my best friend, you know, were lost throughout all that water and it was like horrifying. It was like a ton of bricks being piled on your chest, all at one time. Just sitting there, basically, for seven months, not knowing, wondering every day, not being able to sleep, being confused, not knowing, you know, how to make heads or tails of the situation, where really to start, where not to start. Just brutal.

S. O'BRIEN: Just brutal, just brutal. We cannot even imagine. So then you get word -- you finally, I guess on a Web site, get connected. Describe for me, Lisa and Felicia, between the two of you, what was that reunion like? Because I tell you, there were people -- we were crying when we saw that reunion, the videotape.

WILLIAMS: It was wonderful! It was like the best day of my whole life since the storm happened. It was just marvelous. Glory, glory to Jesus! Because of the fact that, you know, it was like a bunch of weight lifted off of my chest just to know that they were fine, everything was still together. The kids were bigger. They still look the same. Everything was same, all ends. And everything was still in place.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, thank God.

WILLIAMS: No one missing anymore.

S. O'BRIEN: You could see the joy.

L. STEWART: I was overwhelmed, happy, joyous. Every word that explains and describes.

S. O'BRIEN: You can you see it in your faces.

L. STEWART: Happy!

S. O'BRIEN: Happy, yes. That kind of sums it up, doesn't it, after seven long months?


S. O'BRIEN: Thank you for sharing your story with us. Cortez, thank you for staying awake with you.

L. STEWART: Thank you.

S. O'BRIEN: Appreciate it. She's so cute.

CORTEZ STEWART: Thank you, too.

S. O'BRIEN: And happy 4th birthday!

L. STEWART: Hey, happy birthday, baby.

WILLIAMS: Say thank you so much.

L. STEWART: And Happy New Year's and Merry Christmas.

S. O'BRIEN: Oh, geez, 4-year-olds. They're tougher than some of my toughest interview, I got to tell you. At least it's...

C. STEWART: ... Merry Christmas and my Merry Christmas.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes. Lisa Stewart and Felicia Williams and Cortez Stewart, joining us this morning. Wow, what a great ending to be able to report.

Short break. We're back in a moment.


M. O'BRIEN: They're calling it Operation Swarmer. And we're trying to separate the hype from the reality, as this latest effort to try to route out the insurgency of Iraq continues some 75 miles north of Baghdad. Troops, U.S. and Iraqi together, trying to cordon off what is believed to be a hotbed of that insurgency or sectarian violence, depending on which way you look at it.

Joining us now to talk a little bit about the offensive and where it fits into the big picture of the crisis in Iraq, here in New York is former CNN Baghdad correspondent Jane Arraf. She is now with the Council on Foreign Relations. She's headed back to Baghdad very shortly. In Baghdad, senior international correspondent Nic Robertson, the only TV reporter who was on the ground during the operation. And at the Pentagon, CNN's Barbara Starr.

Let's start with Nic, since he's there.

Nic, what did you see there? We heard General Bernard Trainer (ph) just a little while ago on our air saying, you know, that you guys are hyping this a little bit too much. This is not that much more than a routine operation. What would you say based, on what you saw?

ROBERTSON: Well, Miles, we asked the commanders these questions. We said, look, you've called this the biggest air assault since the invasion of Iraq three years ago. And they said, well, technically, at one time there were 60 helicopters involved in the operation and that was technically correct. We said, well, there's a lot of play here, there appears to be spin, possibly, that this is all about just showing off how well the Iraqi army troops are doing.

I think our analysis on the ground is, yes, there was a big headline that attracted a lot of people there. When we got there, it wasn't about that headline. It was all about how well the Iraqi troops are doing. We weren't able to see an operation -- we weren't able to see troops arriving at a house to see how the operation really unfolded. We saw specific locations when the situation was controlled.

What we did see, and what I saw changed about Iraqi army troops that I saw, and what has been a progressive change, was a greater integration. Certainly, their commanders are being pushed to the forefront. Certainly in the conversations, the mantra from both brigade commanders, Iraqi and U.S., that this was an Iraqi-led operation; the Iraqis were leading the way.

But we were able to see Iraqi troops better equipped. They had armored humvees. Now I remember doing a story only three or four months ago about an Iraqi commander who was still going out in a Toyota pickup truck with no armor on the vehicle and his soldiers had sort of rag-tag uniforms. These soldiers had uniforms. Now, how -- how widespread is that? How effectively did these troops work together? That's something we really can't say.

What I can say from seeing this operation is that the troops were better equipped, in terms of uniform and equipment, and seem to be integrating better, working in the field. And we did see that, working together with the U.S. troops -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: All right. You've led us well to Barbara Starr at the Pentagon. Barbara, Nic is talking about some, you know, substantial improvement on the part of the Iraqi forces. That is so crucial before there's any decision to bring U.S. troops home, to have a real bonafide Iraqi security and fighting force. What are they saying at the Pentagon about the honest to goodness readiness of the Iraqi troops?

BARBARA STARR, CNN PENTAGON CORRESPONDENT: Well, Miles, what they're -- this is the anniversary week, if you will, three years ago, essentially, that the war in Iraq started. And what commanders here are saying is look how far they have come. Is there a long way to go? Yes. But even a year ago, the Iraqi security forces simply did not have the capability they have today.

There are two keys, however -- two key things that must happen before there can be a further significant drawdown in U.S. troops. That is that the Iraqi security forces, including the police forces under the Ministry of Interior, have to demonstrate that they really can hold on to the territory, secure the areas that they are responsible for and, as General Abizaid continues to press the point, on the political side, there must be, he says, a new national unity government that can take hold and demonstrate to the people in Iraq that it's in charge.

But in terms of this operation, I have to tell you, even early yesterday morning, here in the Pentagon, we were being cautioned, actually, that this operation was one of another series of operations, that it needed to be placed in context. No one here was claiming that this would really change the face of the security picture in Iraq. Was it a large operation? Yes. But one measure of just how it fell into the category of another routine military operation -- senior commanders here, senior officials here, really hadn't been prewarned about it. They don't get warning, or briefed, if you will, on every operation in Iraq. This one didn't even rise to the level that they were briefed on it before it happened -- Miles.

M. O'BRIEN: Interesting point.

Jane Arraf, you were there for the first battle of Samarra, embedded with troops at that time. To what extent is this bit of a Groundhog Day here and to what extent are things different on the ground, you think?

JANE ARRAF, COUNCIL ON FOREIGN RELATIONS: It all very much looks the same. Not just Samarra, but operations that we were in Al Anbar, which had more troops to them in. And that's really the problem here, that three years on, you're still chasing a very elusive enemy. And this is the toughest warfare of all to fight.

In talking to military planners, they're very clear that you cannot defeat this militarily. That it's got to be political. You've got to get those Iraqi forces up. On the ground, from what I saw, yes, there is progress with Iraqi forces. There are more units. But that doesn't mean they can stand on their own.

And if you look behind this headline -- and this looks like a great headlines: U.S. and Iraqi troops working together -- you've got to look at what Iraqis are actually doing and who is actually leading. They may have provided the intelligence, but these are all very much still U.S. operations.

M. O'BRIEN: As far as interaction with the people, though, having the Iraqis in the loop does make a big difference. You've been there as those doors have been knocked down with U.S. soldiers who have no culture or language facility. And people on both sides misunderstanding, frightened, all the bad things that can happen at those moments. At least having Iraqis in the loop changes that?

ARRAF: You would think. But you know what? When it's your door is knocked down, it doesn't really matter whether it's an Iraqi or...

M. O'BRIEN: Good point.

ARRAF: ... an American at the other end. And the thing we have to remember is, this is such a divided country, that I've talked to many Iraqis who say they would rather deal with U.S. soldiers than Iraqi soldiers. They don't trust their government, they don't trust the Army in many cases. In many places, they don't trust the police. Not as simple as it looks.

M. O'BRIEN: Very interesting point. Jane Arraf. I wish we had more time for all three of you. But Jane Arraf, Nic Robertson, Barbara Starr, thanks for being with us for kind of mini roundtable.

ARRAF: Thank you. M. O'BRIEN: Appreciate it -- Soledad.

S. O'BRIEN: Ahead this morning, mortgage rates, three and a half year high. We've got some tips to help you beat the high rates. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. We're back in a moment.



M. O'BRIEN: Still to come in the program, in a time when our kids need it the most, fewer kids are getting the physical education that they need. We'll show you one school that's trying to do something about that.

S. O'BRIEN: And what's in a name? We're going to explain our name -- O'Brien, that is -- and help you research your name, even if you're not lucky enough to be Irish today. That's ahead on AMERICAN MORNING. That's our coat of arms, by the way. The O'Brien coat of arms.

M. O'BRIEN: Strong hand uppermost is the motto.

S. O'BRIEN: Not sure what that means. That's ahead. Stay with us.


S. O'BRIEN: It might be hard for you to believe, but I believe it. There are about 800,000 O'Briens in the world. Yes, I believe that.

M. O'BRIEN: We are prolific, the O'Briens.

S. O'BRIEN: Yes, we are.

M. O'BRIEN: What is a better time to explore the history of the O'Brien name than St. Patrick's Day? Joining us now is Laura Murphy DeGrazia.

S. O'BRIEN: A good Irish lass.

M. O'BRIEN: It's a European mix. And a genealogist who specialized in Irish-American geology. She doesn't pay much attention to the Italian-American part.

And from Reno, Nevada, Conor Miles O'Brien, better known to members of the clan as the Lord Inchiquin the O'Brien, chief of the name. Good to have you both with us.

S. O'BRIEN: Let's start with Lord Inchiquin, because I'm embarrassed to say, I didn't know -- what does it mean the O'Brien? You're the O'Brien?

CONOR O'BRIEN, "THE O'BRIEN": I'm the chief of the O'Brien clan. That's what "the" means. It's denotes that I'm the chief. It's not a title, it's a position.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. And he probably doesn't remember, but several years ago my wife and I visited Dromoland Castle and stayed in your house there.

C. O'BRIEN: I do remember! Yes.

M. O'BRIEN: And it was really wonderful. And he's got all the books. You know, you can really trace the genealogy there. Because you have a lot of the literature there, don't you?

C. O'BRIEN: I do, yes, and I have quite a lot.

M. O'BRIEN: What kinds of questions do you get from people, as they try to trace back their roots?

C. O'BRIEN: Well, I suppose the main question is where do we come from? And, as you know, we descend from Brian Buro, the most famous high king we had in Ireland, which is quite a descent to be able to look back on. And all O'Briens want to trace their ancestry as far back as they can to get into the main branch of the O'Briens and go back up to the Brian Buro. And that's their aim. But there are an awful lot of us, as you know.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, there are.

S. O'BRIEN: Well, I feel good about that. I knew we tried to trace it back to Brian Buro, but I didn't realize we were the most important, famous et cetera, et cetera. Are the -- is O'Brien, Laura -- is O'Brien the most popular Irish name or no?

C. O'BRIEN: No, it's not. The most popular name, believe it or not, is the Murphys!

S. O'BRIEN: Oh. I believe it, actually. Now that I think about it.

C. O'BRIEN: While and the O'Briens and the O'Neills and O'Connors were off doing sort of manly stuff like fighting, the Murphys must have been doing other things!

S. O'BRIEN: We're not even going to touch that one! Chief, chief, we're not touch that one. Let me ask Laura a quick question. How come you get the "A-N" in some O'Briens -- are "A-N"s. And some O'Briens are "I-E-N"s.

LAURA MURPHY DEGRAZIA, GENEALOGIST: Well, the use of surnames evolved over several centuries in Ireland. And the gentry were the first to use surnames. The peasants were among the last. So up to the 17th century, the lower class, the working classes, weren't even using surnames consistently. And during the 17th and 19th century, as the English came into Ireland, there were spelling variations. There were the English recording, Irish sounding names. And we had differences in the way it was recorded. And we...

S. O'BRIEN: Are we all -- but we're still related? If you're an "A-N" or an "I-E-N."

DEGRAZIA: Not necessarily, no. In some places where there may have been a quite number O'Brien families, some O'Brien families may have chosen to use a different surname to differentiate themselves. So you may be connected to people...

S. O'BRIEN: I'm going to stop calling those people "cuz." Because they might not be my cousins.

M. O'BRIEN: So wait a minute. There are multiple O'Briens? So some of these people may not trace back to Brian Buro?

DEGRAZIA: Exactly, yes. And it would be very difficult to try to trace back for the typical Irish-American -- or any Irishmen, actually -- past about 1800, it would be difficult to make a definite connection.

M. O'BRIEN: I see.

S. O'BRIEN: Lord Inchiquin, I've only -- I haven't spent a lot of time in Ireland. So let me ask you a couple questions.

M. O'BRIEN: You should go. We should go together. That would be fun!

S. O'BRIEN: Wouldn't that be fun? We spend a lot of time together anyway, why not vacation together? So Dromoland Castle is our ancestral home?

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, and he lives there. Do you still live there?

S. O'BRIEN: Is that my ancestral home?

C. O'BRIEN: Well, my father was born there.

S. O'BRIEN: Wowee.

C. O'BRIEN: But I was brought up mainly in the UK, as you can probably tell by my accent. Educated at an English public school. But I used to spend quite a lot of my holidays in Ireland, and it was my uncle who sold Dromoland in 1962, and it became then the top castle resort hotel in Ireland.

S. O'BRIEN: Does that mean that because it's your ancestral home, it's my ancestral home, too? I can stay there?

C. O'BRIEN: Well, of course you can stay there, absolutely.

M. O'BRIEN: For some serious (INAUDIBLE). Going to cost you a few bucks!

S. O'BRIEN: No, I meant, like, as a relative kind of thing.

C. O'BRIEN: Well, you can come and stay with me.

M. O'BRIEN: Which is what I did! Now, are you still there or are you in Reno? What are you doing in Reno?

C. O'BRIEN: Well, I'm here for the O'Brien Clan Foundation annual general meeting, which we have every year.

S. O'BRIEN: We should be there.

C. O'BRIEN: We set up a foundation for the O'Brien clan. It's mainly an educational foundation. And we've got exciting things happening this year, because we're turning our Web site into a database-driven Web site in two months time. So it's going to change considerably. And you might say watch this space.

M. O'BRIEN: Excellent.

C. O'BRIEN: But and are the main Web sites for the O'Brien clan all over the world.

S. O'BRIEN: Lord Inchiquin?

C. O'BRIEN: And there's a huge amount of information up there.

S. O'BRIEN: Chief, I guess? Well, let me ask you a question. This is the O'Brien coat of arms, which I have to say --love it, it's great. We also have an O'Brien motto, which is "strongest hand uppermost."

C. O'BRIEN: That's right.

S. O'BRIEN: What exactly does that mean?

C. O'BRIEN: Well, that was Brian Boru's battle cry, supposedly. "Strong hand uppermost." And then later on, in the 17th century, we added -- it was fashionable to add a French motto, which was "Vigeur de Desuex (ph)," which means strength from above. So they're both very similar. So you can use either, the Irish or the French one.

S. O'BRIEN: I think the Irish one is probably a little more relevant.


M. O'BRIEN: French! We don't want to get the French involved in this!

S. O'BRIEN: We can go online and search their routes, as well.

Lord Inchiquin, thank you for talking with us. I'll get back to you on vacations that I'm thinking of taking, so I can come and stay with you.

C. O'BRIEN: Well, do! I'll be in contact with both of you, I hope.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes, we'll be back.

S. O'BRIEN: Tell the family we said hey. C. O'BRIEN: I want to tell you more about the foundation.

M. O'BRIEN: All right, excellent.

S. O'BRIEN: Tell all of the O'Briens at the foundation that we say hey this morning. Laura Murphy DeGrazia, as well, joining us. Thank you for talking with us, you guys.

DEGRAZIA: Thank you.

M. O'BRIEN: Thanks. Happy St. Patrick's Day to you both.

S. O'BRIEN: Speaking of O'Briens, we're going to meet some other O'Briens.

M. O'BRIEN: Yes. Irish eyes will be smiling when I meet A. Miles O'Brien.

S. O'BRIEN: What's that, Andrew? Not just a Miles O'Brien but A. Miles O'Brien. And guess who I'm going to meet?

M. O'BRIEN: You're going to meet the one and only other Soledad O'Brien. Who knew there were two? Now we know, right?

S. O'BRIEN: That's ahead.

M. O'BRIEN: Coming up in the program, top stories, including one person dead, another person injured at a Denny's restaurant in California.

Also, just in, there's been a train accident in Anaheim, California. We'll have more on that in a moment.

Firefighters claim progress in containing three major wildfires in Texas.

Toxicology tests show Slobodan Milosevic was not poisoned.

And we are live from Iraq, as U.S. troops launch the biggest air operation since the beginning of the Iraq war three years ago.

Stay with us for more AMERICAN MORNING.