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CNN LIVE EVENT/SPECIAL

War in Iraq: Basra Becomes Military Target

Aired March 25, 2003 - 02:00   ET

THIS IS A RUSH TRANSCRIPT. THIS COPY MAY NOT BE IN ITS FINAL FORM AND MAY BE UPDATED.

DARYN KAGAN, CNN ANCHOR: Basra has become a military target for coalition forces. Our Christiane Amanpour reports that Iraqi forces have pulled their tanks and artillery back into the city. Iraqi Army units and their regular forces are blending into the city in a possible move to draw coalition forces into urban warfare.
U.S. Marines encountered more fire today from Iraqi forces around the city of Nasiriyah in southern Iraq. Most of that fighting has been over the control of bridges over the Euphrates River. Our Alessio Vinci with the Marines around Nasiriyah reports that one Marine unit on the outskirts of the city was hit with friendly fire and one Marine was injured.

Coalition aircraft have targeted Saddam International Airport near Baghdad. Our Frank Buckley is aboard the USS Constellation. He reports that planes have zeroed in on that airport.

U.S. officials say there may be a red line around Baghdad, that if crossed could trigger Iraqi use of chemical weapons. Intelligence sources suggest the Republican Guard has issued chemical weapons and have been given orders to use them if coalition forces get too close to the capital city.

Thirty-eight coalition troops have died so far during the conflict, 12 Americans died in combat, including 10 Marines at Nasiriyah. A total of 25 troops have died in non-combat situations including two helicopter crashes that have taken 19 lives.

And the first British soldier to be killed in combat when the casualty of fighting near Basra. Seven American soldiers have been taken prisoners by the Iraqi military. The latest are two Apache pilots whose helicopter went down near Karbala. The Apache has since been destroyed by a U.S. military strike.

U.S. Air Force officials say the skies over Iraq have been virtually devoid of Iraqi aircraft. They say the Iraqi airports have not flown a single sortie since the war began. Iraq has more than 300 fighter planes in its arsenal.

President Bush releases the first White House estimate of the cost of the war with Iraq and the president is asking for $75 billion. That is based on an estimate that the conflict will last about 30 days. Officials say it may be the first of several funding requests.

Coming up, in this hour of coverage of the war on Iraq, a tough, tough day for the families of American prisoners of war. They talk candidly about their loved ones and they talked to us here at CNN. You will hear from them. Also, more on the cost of the war. How much money more will the president ask for? We will take you live to Washington to break down that price tag.

And live from the front lines, get a close-up look at the battles going on in southern Iraq from our CNN correspondents embedded with coalition troops. Also, I'm headed out here in Kuwait City to show you some of the humanitarian aid waiting to make its way to Iraqis in the southern part of the country.

For now, though, we send it back to Atlanta to Anderson Cooper and Carol Costello.

CAROL COSTELLO, CNN ANCHOR: Two more prisoners of war shot down in central Iraq. These pilots, POWs, are the latest Americans to be shown on Iraqi television. Good morning to you. It's Tuesday, March 25 from CNN's global headquarters in Atlanta. I'm Carol Costello.

ANDERSON COOPER, CNN ANCHOR: And good morning. I'm Anderson Cooper, 2:00 a.m. here on the East Coast, 10:00 a.m. in Baghdad. There are now seven known U.S. prisoners of war being held captive by Iraq. That is the latest word from the Pentagon and that number includes the two Apache helicopter pilots you just saw who were captured after their aircraft went down in Iraq on Monday.

The pilots were shown on Abu Dhabi TV in what appeared to be good condition, identified as Ronald Young and David Williams, both chief warrant officers with an Aviation Battalion from Fort Hood, Texas. Now Iraqi television showed their helicopter, which was not visibly damaged surrounded by Iraqis, many holding guns. The chopper was later destroyed in a U.S. air strike so the Iraqis could not benefit from it. There were still some munitions, as we see, in those pictures on the chopper.

CNN's Susan Candiotti spoke with Ronald Young's family in Lithia Springs, Georgia.

(BEGIN VIDEOTAPE)

SUSAN CANDIOTTI, CNN CORRESPONDENT (on camera): We're at the home of Ronald and Kaye Young, who have asked us to show us the very first videotape pictures available of their son, who has apparently been captured and is a prisoner of war at this time. Here's the videotape.

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (SPEAKING FOREIGN LANGUAGE)

CANDIOTTI: Mrs. Young, how do you -- how does your son look to you when you see him on that videotape?

KAYE YOUNG, MOTHER OF POW RONALD YOUNG: I think he looks good. He looks like he always looks when he's angry. He's a tough soldier and he believes in what he's doing. He wanted to go. I think he looks good.

CANDIOTTI: What's the last thing you said to him? YOUNG: That I loved him and I cried and I have cried so much today I just don't think I have any tears left, but I'm just now -- it's like a bad dream. It's just like a bad dream.

CANDIOTTI: I have to ask you, if you had the chance and this might be one to talk to your son, what do you want him to know?

YOUNG: Oh I want him to know how much I love him, how much we're praying for him. Everybody is -- I have family in South Carolina and prayer list everywhere. And my church is having a fast for him and he's just -- we have prayers coming from every direction and prayers can bring you home, it will. But he -- I want him to know how proud I am of him and...

CANDIOTTI: Is this something that you always thought might happen in the back of your mind?

YOUNG: Yes.

CANDIOTTI: Tell me about that.

YOUNG: When he first went in the service, well when 9/11 first happened, he (UNINTELLIGIBLE) to Afghanistan, but he never had to go, but he came home one weekend and we just both cried. We just held each other and cried and it was so sweet and then, he didn't go. So this time we didn't really do that, but you know, I've only talked to him once since he's been gone and I've gotten one letter. So, but we have sent boxes and all my friends have sent boxes and we've sent mail and I don't know if he'll get any of it now, but he told me in the letter, you know, their mess tent burned down -- he said my mess tent burned down and it took four other tents with it, and he said now we're eating MR3s (ph).

(CROSSTALK)

YOUNG: MREs...

CANDIOTTI: Meals ready to eat, right?

YOUNG: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) and you know, he wasn't real fond of that, but he said that they had their orders and he didn't think it was going to be very difficult maneuver, that he thought they would be fine.

CANDIOTTI: What is your hope for now Mrs. Young?

YOUNG: I really hoped all day long that he would not be captured, but since he has been, I just hope they won't do anything to him. That you know, they won't hurt them, they won't torture him and that he'll come back the person he was when he left.

(END VIDEOTAPE)

COOPER: Well video of the five other known American POWs were broadcast on the Al Jazeera Arab television network on Sunday. The POWs from Fort Bliss, Texas include Specialist Shoshana Johnson, Private First Class Patrick Miller, Army Specialist Joseph Hudson, Specialist Edgar Hernandez and Sergeant James Riley.

COSTELLO: Let's go to the battlefront right now to talk with our correspondent Art Harris. He's with the U.S. 3rd Battalion 2nd Marine Division and they've come under fire, again, by these pockets of fierce resistance. Art's on the phone with us right now. What can you tell us now Art?

Art Harris, are you there? We lost Art Harris, so we're going to try to get him back. Where are we going to go now?

COOPER: We -- and we should just mention as we try to get back Art Harris that Art was -- has been in and around Nasiriyah for several days now. He is, as you said, with the Marines and really the important part of Nasiriyah is they are trying to -- the strategically important part is these bridges, which provide -- will provide crossover our capabilities and that is where a lot of...

COSTELLO: There are two bridges there, over the Euphrates River and apparently, the coalition forces have control of these bridges. But these fierce pockets of resistance are prohibiting them from crossing them to move on up to Baghdad.

COOPER: Right.

COSTELLO: And of course, they came under fire again today.

COOPER: And Art Harris had reported yesterday and really throughout the day some of the troubles that the...

COSTELLO: I understand we have Art back...

(CROSSTALK)

COSTELLO: ... so let's see what's going on right now -- Art.

ART HARRIS, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Yes, I'm in Nasiriyah with the U.S. Marines and there has been a lot of fighting and a lot of dying in the last few days here. I rode in this morning with a unit that was here to reinforce and resupply Marines who have been engaged in very heavy fighting. Sporadic gunfire, mortars, artillery going on all morning since we've been here for the last three hours and there has been a dilemma that the Marines have faced and that has to do with trying to figure out who is their enemy, who are the Iraqi troops when no one is wearing uniforms, it seems.

In fact, just a minute ago, I could look out and see a car pull up, four men would jump out in what appeared to be black robes and a Marine tank, a U.S. Marine tank just opened fire and they fell. They're now, they look like they're approaching the car, but these kinds of firefights and exchanges have been going on for the last several days and the Marines have expressed frustration that they do not know who is the Iraqi Army because no one here is wearing uniforms. (UNINTELLIGIBLE)

COSTELLO: Yes, Art, this is Carol Costello speaking to you now. I just wondered more about those men in the car who jumped out in black robes. Did the Marines see any weapons and at this point, does it really matter if they see weapons? Are things just too dicey there?

HARRIS: Carol, that -- the policy is this. They have to see weapons and the weapons have to be aimed at them. It was too far away for me to catch those details. I just know that there have been these moments. Yesterday, I was with a Marine unit and they showed me two Iraqi soldiers in uniform who the night before they got caught on a road near the Euphrates River. They had raised their AK-47s, aimed them at the light armored vehicles as if to fire and the machine gunner took them both down in three short burst. They were buried with -- one with his boots on, one barefoot. But they had uniforms on and so, it has been difficult to tell because I was at a crossing watching the Marines check people as they came across the Euphrates and they were carrying little bags. Most all of them were in traditional robes and in the bags, many were carrying Iraqi Army uniforms. A couple even had gas masks, so they are carefully having to go through and try to figure out who's who. It's a very perplexing situation for them Carol.

COSTELLO: Art, I just want to ask you if you're safe and if you have to go or you can talk to us for a little bit more.

HARRIS: We're OK. I'm behind a concrete wall and I can hear a lot of mortar fire and the Cobra gunships are overhead looking for other possible targets, but I'm fine. Go ahead.

COSTELLO: All right, well we're going to let you go anyway because we're worried. Art Harris reporting live from Nasiriyah. We're going to get back to him intermittently throughout the morning.

COOPER: And we've been reporting really for the last couple of days that coalition strategy sort of to avoid some of these larger cities, in particular Basra, the second largest city, of course, in the south of Iraq. That may now be changing and on the phone is Christiane Amanpour with some new information -- Christiane.

CHRISTIANE AMANPOUR, CNN CHIEF INTERNATIONAL CORRESPONDENT: Anderson, indeed, it is proving much more difficult than anticipated to try to stick to the strategy around those urban areas and now the British military, which has -- which is in charge of the southeastern part of Iraq is saying that strategy towards Basra has shifted, having told us today that Basra is not a military target, it is now a military target because they want to wear down the Iraqi Army there and deliver humanitarian aid.

That's the reason we're being given, but the fact of the matter is the British are telling us that the 51st Iraqi Division, which was defending outside of Basra, they had thought had been surrendering and/or melting away. Instead, well they've now concluded is significant elements of that Iraqi Army division has gone back, pulled back into Basra, along with its tanks, its artillery, and its infantry and it is engaging British forces from inside the city. There have been, we're told over the last 10 hours, over a period of 10 hours yesterday, 11 artillery exchanges between the U.K. and the Iraqi forces inside Basra. In addition, British officials military do not know because they cannot see whether Saddam Hussein's government is reinforcing Basra from -- above the Tigris River and down towards the east of Basra. The British only have west of Basra screened off, so they don't know whether in addition to these forces melting back into the town and causing significant military activity, whether indeed those are also being reinforced from the north and towards the east.

Added to that, there are the irregulars, as they call them here, who are also inside Basra. The Saddam Fedayeen and the Baath Party militias, which are also adding to the military buildup inside Basra. So, what we're being told here is the British operations could now enter a very difficult and high risk period in and around Basra because they have never wanted to engage in urban, either urban warfare or indeed in situations that could inflict casualties on Iraqi civilians, not to mention their own forces.

So, what's happening, they tell us, is that the Iraqis are now luring in the coalition forces and in this case, British around Basra on their own terms knowing that the British do not want to fight in urban areas. They have created a situation whereby they have turned the center of Basra into a military area -- Anderson.

COOPER: Christiane, obviously a very ominous development as you point out, and I'm not sure how much you can say on it, because we certainly don't want to be announcing any military plans, but how does -- how do the British plan or have they said how they plan to deal with this? I mean, if this fighting is now going to be -- the desire on the Iraqi part is to draw them into the cities, are they going to go there or is there some other alternative?

AMANPOUR: Well that's very -- it's a good question and as you correctly surmised, we're unable to talk about future plans.

COOPER: OK, fair enough.

AMANPOUR: And indeed, we haven't been fully briefed on future plans, but they did tell us that overnight British 7th Armored Brigade, that involves, you know, heavy artillery and tanks, went in and conducting operation in a town just south of Basra and this was specifically aimed at Baath Party buildings, at specific Baath Party high level officials, we're told. We're told that they've got one of them. I think what they're trying to do is to not only neutralize whatever military threat they're under, but try to separate the political leadership in these areas from the rest of the Army and from the rest of the civilians. They're trying to, so that's why they're going after, at least they have gone after these Baath Party officials.

Now, just one other note. The Iraqis, as I say, are mounting counting offensive. Overnight, we're told the Iraqis mounted a counter offensive onto the southern Al Faw Peninsula, that oil terminal in the south of Iraq, which we are told has been secured several days ago. The British responded. They called in close air support and we are told that they took out 20 Iraqi armored vehicles including tanks. So, there, you know, the Iraqis are putting resistance and in some cases, may succeed in shifting the battle to their terms. And of course, the British tell us that they're very aware of this. They don't want to get sucked in and they're going to do what they can and as yet, that's unknown and unreportable to keep it on their terms.

COOPER: And Christiane, the irony, of course, of all this is that the Iraqis are basically from your reporting going to be using the civilian population of Basra as part of their defense and yet the only reason, according to coalition forces, that they want to go into Basra is to help out the civilian population because there is a looming humanitarian crisis there. Is that right?

AMANPOUR: Well that's right. The initial objective was to bypass urban areas and to wait until, you know, it was a time in which the civilian population was sort of welcomed them in. The situation on the humanitarian level in Basra is that it's believed they have at least 15 days of food supply, but it's the water that's the problem because they have a lack of electricity and they need that, not to just pump water, but to pump the water purification plant. So, it's a double problem over there. So, that's their big concern.

And in terms of wanting to ignore, rather leave these civilian areas until they were (UNINTELLIGIBLE) ready to be entered on a friendly way, that changed when it became apparent that instead of surrendering and melting away the Iraqi Army has chosen to move back and take its military stance inside the city. So this is going to cause some readjustment by the British forces here to figure out how to deal with that.

COOPER: Christiane, just so you know, on the side of our screen besides a picture of you, we are seeing a picture from Al Jazeera of what I imagine to be people on the streets of Basra, some sort of militia or whether it's Fedayeen fighters or the irregulars, sort of dancing in the streets with AK-47s and the like. So they're dancing toward the cameras...

AMANPOUR: Right. We're told that those irregulars have AK-47s and I believe (UNINTELLIGIBLE) but of course, the actual Army has much heavier equipment including tanks, and as I said, lots of infantry and artillery as well. So to combine...

COOPER: I'm sorry, go ahead.

AMANPOUR: I was just saying so it's a combined threat.

COOPER: You had mentioned earlier in your report there have been 11 artillery exchanges between British forces and Iraqi forces in Basra and again, this may not be a question one could answer. Any sense of -- has there been aerial bombardment at all? Has this been strictly been artillery and ground operations?

AMANPOUR: We understand so far strictly artillery. Let me just get an update on that. Was there any air activity over Basra?

UNIDENTIFIED MALE: (UNINTELLIGIBLE) AMANPOUR: Coming out of the southeast area, yes, they encountered with air support in the southeast area of Basra.

COOPER: OK. And again, probably not a question you can answer, but I've got to ask. Any sense of the timetable on this? I mean, you say it is now a military target. Do you know, are we talking hours? Are we talking days before, perhaps, we should be looking for more activity in Basra?

AMANPOUR: Well I think the activity has already stepped up from what we've been told and what we've been reporting. For instance, the southeast of Basra situation where they went after the Baath Party officials and in terms of engaging in these artillery battles with the Iraqis, I think it's already stepped up and the likelihood is without being officially told this that there will be an increase of military activity and it may well be confined to the outskirts. That's what they would like, because they think that a lot of these military -- while they pull back -- I mean, they think they may also be in the outskirts. What they want to do is to try to neutralize that.

And again, you know, again, their aim, preferred aim would be to force a surrender or to convince them that they should stop fighting and surrender.

COOPER: And just to remind, anytime you've got to go, but just remind our viewers, Christiane, talk a little bit about the importance of Basra as a site for Shiites, largely the population there and a the sight of uprisings in 1991 after the Gulf War.

AMANPOUR: Yes. Well, it's part of the big, well it is, the big city in the south. It has anywhere between one and 1.4 million inhabitants. The majority are Shiite and yes, there were these uprisings in the south back in 1991. The significance, of course, is because it is an early test of -- in terms of the U.S. and U.K. objective. It's an early test for how it's going to go. You know what I mean?

How the military operation is going to go and whether, in fact, what they had hoped and we have been briefed on this many, many times before the war started. They had hoped that the people of Iraq would see the U.S. and U.K. forces as liberators and in a short period of time welcome them in and wave the white flag. Well maybe some people do and some people would like to do that, but they're being (UNINTELLIGIBLE) right now from the military and irregular forces, which are making a stand.

COOPER: And those -- that's the kind of stand we've also seen in Umm Qasr as you reported several days ago...

AMANPOUR: That's right.

COOPER: ... irregular forces, the strong pockets of resistance is the term we keep using. Christiane, I know you've got to go. We appreciate you joining us and we'll check in with you later. Christiane Amanpour reporting from the region. COSTELLO: Just to make clear everybody knows where Basra is. It's in the southeastern portion of Iraq. Nasiriyah is to the north of Basra and fighting is now ongoing in both places.

As you probably know by now, seven American soldiers are officially listed as prisoners of war in Iraq. White House officials have expressed outrage at some of the treatment depicted in television reports from Iraq. We want to go to our Chris Plante who's at the Pentagon for more on that. Chris, do you have any new information on the POWs?

CHRIS PLANTE, CNN CORRESPONDENT: Well, there's no new information, Carol, but it's clear that it is a problem when POWs fall into enemy hands. It's something that happens in every armed conflict, certainly. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld made a point of getting into that the other day, that when you go into armed conflict, you can expect that POWs will be taken.

Pardon me, 130,000 or so ground troops in the area and a total of 250,000 or more coalition forces operating in the area including Naval forces and Air forces. It's got to be anticipated that POWs will be taken. At this point, the U.S. government is just demanding that they be treated properly, that they not be abused, that they be treated in accordance with the various Geneva Convention requirements. And the hope is, of course, that this conflict will not drag on all too long and that these POWs will be returned safely to their families -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Was it your sense, Chris, that Iraqi television shot these pilots in a different manner than it did the other five POWs. They looked in good health. They didn't look as if they'd been beaten up. They weren't being questioned. Was that your sense?

PLANTE: Well it certainly appeared that way and that, of course, came on the heels of the first group of POWs, the five POWs taken. Obviously, a good deal of violence involved in their being taken prisoner, given that there was also videotape aired on Iraqi TV showing that a number of the soldiers with that unit were killed.

With the second round, this helicopter, the helicopter looks like it landed sort of perhaps from a mechanical problem and these two POWs were taken. It did appear that they had not been abused. This was after warnings from the United States that the POWs should be treated appropriately and it did appear that these, if I'm not mistaken, they were sitting there with cups of tea or coffee in their hands, which seemed to be almost over the top...

COSTELLO: Yes.

PLANTE: ... when it comes to treating them properly. It did appear as though they had almost been invited into the building where they were, but...

(CROSSTALK)

COSTELLO: Yes I just found that... PLANTE: ... certainly they did appear to have gone through less than the first five POWs.

COSTELLO: Yes, I just found that quite interesting. Let's talk about this Apache helicopter that's in Iraqi territory. Do you think that the U.S. military has gone in and blown that thing up or is it still there?

PLANTE: It's our understanding that they have done that. As we were discussing last night, yesterday morning when we first learned that the helicopter was down, it is standard procedure in a situation like this if you have high-tech equipment that is sensitive and you don't want falling into the hands of the adversaries, it is standard procedure for the U.S. to go in and through whatever means, either through an air strike if it's in territory that you can't get to on foot or if you have ground troops in the air, to go in and blow up this equipment. So that it can't be (UNINTELLIGIBLE) in fact, in the NATO action against Yugoslavia over Kosovo, because of (UNINTELLIGIBLE) Albanians, the United States lost an F-117 Stealth fighter, which is also considered to be sensitive technology.

They had discussed going in and destroying that from the air so that the technology did not fall into enemy hands. At the time that flights were inbound, as we understand it, armed to go in after that equipment, there were live pictures that appeared on television out of Belgrade that showed that there was a large crowd of civilians around it. So that mission to destroy that technology was called off and intelligence will tell you that Belgrade, then, did provide bits of the F-117 Stealth fighter to Russia and to China.

COSTELLO: Understand.

PLANTE: So, it's something they take very seriously.

COSTELLO: Let's switch topics right now and talk about this supposed red line around Baghdad and whether Saddam Hussein will urge his forces to use these chemical weapons against coalition forces.

PLANTE: Well there are, according to what we're hearing here, intelligence reports and like most intelligence reports, they're not at the 100 percent confidence level, but there are apparently intelligence reports that indicate that Baghdad has ordered some of its units, some of its more loyal units, Republican Guard units in the field surrounding Baghdad to use chemical weapons, which we had earlier heard reported had been already given to some units in the field, to use chemical weapons against advancing American and British forces if they cross a red line that Baghdad has drawn around the city.

We haven't seen the use of any chemical weapons so far in this conflict, but of course, it wouldn't be advantageous early on for Baghdad to use chemical weapons against coalition...

COSTELLO: And Chris, we...

PLANTE: ... forces. COSTELLO: ... we should make it sure that we don't know whether Saddam Hussein has chemical weapons or if he does, if he will use them. Another question for you, though, in coalition forces surrounding Baghdad and knowing that this is a possibility, how will they fight? Are they in their chemical suits already? I mean, what...

PLANTE: They're not. It's very uncomfortable to be in your chemical suits all the while. Although, I would like to mention something in Art Harris' live report earlier. He said that a number of these irregular Iraqi troops, which were dressed in civilian clothes were later found to have their uniforms in bags that they had along with them and with their uniforms, if I heard Art correctly, some of these Iraqi troops had gas masks with them.

It raises an interesting question. Why would Iraqi troops have gas masks with them if the regime did not have chemical weapons and had no intention to use them? A very interesting point I thought from Art's report. As for how the U.S. deals with a chemical weapon threat from the forces around Baghdad, it functions on a number of levels, actually, and the first level is intelligence, in finding out whether chemical weapons have been sent to the field trying to preemptively disrupt their ability to use them and last resort is, of course, getting into your chemical suits -- Carol.

COSTELLO: Understand. Chris Plante reporting live from the Pentagon. Thanks for bringing us up to date.

COOPER: And we should just note to our viewers, we put up that picture of Baghdad while Chris Plante was on because there was a story on the "Reuters" newswire saying that an explosion was heard in Baghdad, planes overhead. That according to a witness quoted by "Reuters".

COSTELLO: And Baghdad has been periodically bombed throughout the night.

COOPER: That's right. Frank Buckley reporting earlier that coalition aircraft are actually targeting Saddam International Airport in Baghdad, as well as other sites. So we just put up the picture. Obviously, you can't see anything in the picture at this moment. It's a fixed camera position. It doesn't give a sense of what's happening elsewhere in the city, but as soon as we get the information, we try to bring it to you, try to put it on.

So we're going to a break and then we'll be right back.

(COMMERCIAL BREAK)

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