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The Iraq War: Toughest Day

March 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TOM BEARDEN: Central command staged its second formal briefing since the war began here at its Doha headquarters. There was a lot to talk about: The downing of a British harrier fighter bomber, the continued fighting in cities that had earlier been declared secure, and an attack on American soldiers from within their own ranks. CENTCOM’s deputy commander Lt. Gen. John Abizaid conducted the briefing.

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: In and around Baghdad, we continue our air and special operations activities with good success. In the South, our air units continue the campaign towards Baghdad, and continue to operate in and around the area in support of our ground forces. Combat operations have met with resistance in a number of locations, the most notable of which is in the vicinity of an-Nasiriyah. United States Marines defeated an enemy attack there while sustaining a number of killed and wounded in the sharpest engagement of the war thus far. Also in the vicinity of an-Nasiriyah, a United States army supply convoy was ambushed by irregular Iraqi forces.

A number of American service members were wounded in that action. And as a result of that action, 12 U.S. service members are reported missing. Subsequently, Iraqi regime officials displayed captured Americans on state television. This is a clear violation of the Geneva Convention. Earlier this morning, an American Patriot battery is thought to have downed Tornado in an accident that is both tragic and under investigation. The crew are at this point listed as missing. In the various combat actions and accidents that have taken the lives of many of our comrades in this campaign, all of us mourn them.

TOM BEARDEN: Gen. Abizaid said U.S. troops had encountered irregular forces in the vicinity of as-Nasiriyah.

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Suffice it to say that in the marine action in an-Nasiriyah, it was a combination of irregular forces and regular forces– as a matter of fact, one of the few times that we’ve seen regular forces fight. And it’s difficult for me to characterize it right no whether or not they could have been special Republican Guard units that were moved down into that area, or irregular forces of other types, or irregular armies.

REPORTER: Is this the incident in which the Iraqis were thought to be surrendering and were not?

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: There were several incidents reported today in which there were types of behavior that I can only describe as ruses that were perpetrated by the enemy. In one incident, a flag of surrender was displayed, and it was followed up by artillery fire. In another incident, there were troops dressed in civilian clothes that appeared to welcome the forces, and then ambushed them. So there are a number of incidents occurring to the rear of the main combat forces. None of these incidents, however, I would characterize as posing a danger to the overall success of the mission or the thrust of the main forces towards Baghdad.

TOM BEARDEN: Gen. Abizaid was asked whether the incident at a brigade headquarters for the 101st Airborne, where an American soldier allegedly rolled grenades into the tents of officers, would affect morale.

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: Well, it’s an isolated incident. It was very tragic and very unfortunate, but these things happen. I don’t think it’s at all indicative of the morale of our forces.

TOM BEARDEN: Gen. Abizaid had harsh criticism for the Qatar- based al-Jazeera satellite news channel, which had broadcast videotape of the dead and interviews with the wounded Americans.

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: You’re from al-Jazeera Television. I’m very disappointed that you would portray those pictures of our servicemen. I saw that, and I would ask others not to do that. Yes, sir, in the back.

REPORTER: Can you tell us the pictures you did say in al Jazeera made you feel?

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I wouldn’t want to comment on that. I would say the pictures are disgusting.

TOM BEARDEN: Several reporters asked whether U.S. forces had found any indication of weapons of mass destruction during their advance through southern Iraq.

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: We are continuing to look for weapons of mass destruction; we have received reports from various prisoners that have given us leads. Suffice it to say we continue to look but so far haven’t found any conclusive evidence. We are confident that we will find it. Yes, sir?

REPORTER: You’re now taking quite a substantial part of country and you haven’t found anything. Do you think this WMD, i.e. chemical, was deployed forward and been successfully withdrawn to Baghdad or it was always concentrated in that area, where do you actually think it is?

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I think we’ll find WMD once we have had an opportunity to occupy Baghdad, stabilize Iraq, talk to Iraqis that have participated in the hiding and of the development of it, and it will take some time. We should not expect to immediately come across it, although there are reports that some units in the vicinity of el-Kut may have some type of chemical weapons. Of course we’re taking the necessary precautions to deal with that. But I have no doubt that we’ll find weapons of mass destruction, but you shouldn’t think it’s going to happen tomorrow.

TOM BEARDEN: Gen. Abizaid was asked if the resistance encountered today was indicative of control by senior Iraqi leadership.

LT. GEN. JOHN ABIZAID: I believe these are probably the actions of desperate people that are trying to save a doomed regime. We have not seen on the battlefield a single coherent military move. These moves are dangerous to the troops in the field, but they’re not dangerous to the success of the mission.