Iraq War News Roundup
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
TERENCE SMITH: U.S. Marines met heavy resistance from Iraqis near Nasiriyah, along the Euphrates River. At least two dozen Iraqis were killed in fierce fighting. We get more on the situation there from James Mates of Independent Television News.
JAMES MATES: For 24 hours, U.S. Marines sat out a paralyzing sandstorm, that fouled machinery and paralyzed operations. Then came the rain that turned the desert to a sea of mud, vehicles stranded and young marines forced to spend the last 36 hours outdoors in these conditions, and then be ready for battle. It is, of course, much too early to talk of U.S. forces being bogged down, but this was not how a lightning desert was supposed to look. And the battle for Nasiriyah is not close to being over. A corridor has been cut through the city allowing medical supplies north to Baghdad.
Elsewhere it is an ugly guerrilla warfare. For four days now they have been taking incoming fire from this group of buildings you can see there the midst there. It was once a hospital. It is now an Iraqi command center. The marines have finally lost patience with it and are determined to destroy it with mortar and artillery fire. And when the barrage ended, the marines moved in finally to eradicate the thorn in his side. Dozens of Iraqis have been surrendering, all in civilian clothing, almost all young men; suggesting they are deserters rather than refugees. One family did get out. They broke through the battle lines this morning.
INTERPRETER: She’s saying a lot of civilians got killed in the bombardment and that’s why they ran away.
JAMES MATES: Her daughter spoke of her days of fear.
INTERPRETER: She said I sit in my room and constantly crying.
JAMES MATES: One of the local commanders here told me that he expects to be fighting in this city for weeks. Almost 5,000 men are tied down here.
TERENCE SMITH: Also in the Nasiriyah area, the Fedayeen Saddam, the Iraqi paramilitary force, are playing an unexpectedly large role in delaying and sometimes deceiving allied troops. The Fedayeen, often wearing civilian clothes, have lured coalition forces into ambushes by feigning surrenders, according to military officials. Iraqi troops also have reportedly used civilians as human shields. Just north of Nasiriyah, a U.S. Marine supply convoy was ambushed by Iraqis. Several vehicles were hit, but there were no immediate reports of casualties. And at a nearby hospital, marines found gas masks, some 3,000 chemical suits, and nerve gas antidote injectors, suggesting that the Iraqis might be preparing for chemical warfare.
Meanwhile, it was unclear how much progress U.S. and British forces were making on their march north to Baghdad. The sandstorm may have slowed them. There were also news reports that the coalition had altered strategy to deal with resistance in the South before moving on to the capital. At the Pentagon this afternoon, Gen. Stanley McChrystal was asked about that.
MAJ. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: As we continue to move forward, the first and primary objective, clearly, is to overturn the regime. And I believe that when the regime, in fact, is taken down, the motivation and the support for many of these elements will stop and, therefore, they will become less motivated and less effective. There aren’t a huge number of them. If, in fact, elements have got to go in to do that, they can do that over time.
TERENCE SMITH: At a central command briefing in Qatar today, U.S. Brigadier Gen. Vincent Brooks was asked about reports that a 1,000-vehicle convoy of Iraqi Republican Guards was headed toward allied troops.
BRIGADIER GEN. VINCENT BROOKS: We’ve not seen any significant movements of the types of forces you described from in and around Baghdad. There have been some local positionings. There have been some survival positions, but not serious attacks. And we certainly remain, we believe, well in control of the situation at hand.
TERENCE SMITH: Elsewhere in southern Iraq, wounded British troops were airlifted today out of the southern city of Basra after encountering stiff resistance yesterday. There were reports of some sort of an uprising against Saddam’s forces, but British Prime Minister Tony Blair said it was still unclear what happened.
TONY BLAIR: In relation to what has happened in Basra overnight, and truthfully the reports are confused, but we believe there was some limited form of uprising. What is absolutely clear is that once people know that Saddam’s grip on power is being weakened, then there is no doubt at all they wish to opt for freedom rather than repression.
TERENCE SMITH: In the port city of Umm Qasr, British troops conducted house-to-house searches for weapons and members of Saddam Hussein’s regime.
LT. COL. BUSTER HOWES: What we’re doing is selectively breaking into buildings. So far, we’ve retrieved a quantity of ammunition, rocket launchers, and a number of automatic weapons and to basically patrol and secure the whole area, and that in the last couple of days we seem to have succeeded in reassuring the local populace. And as you can see, they’re all very friendly and glad that we’re here.
TERENCE SMITH: Iraqi TV showed Iraqi soldiers taking up positions with grenade launchers in southern Iraq, though their exact location was unclear. In the North, U.S. bombers attacked Iraqi positions near the Kurdish-controlled area. Black smoke could be seen billowing over the horizon near the Kurdish-held city of Chamchamal. Loud explosions were also heard near the oil-rich city of Kirkuk. After a briefing of ground campaign at McDill Air Force Base in Florida, Pres. Bush addressed the troops at central command headquarters.
PRES. GEORGE W. BUSH: Our military is making good progress in Iraq, yet this war is far from over. As they approach Baghdad, our fighting units are facing the most desperate elements of a doomed regime. We cannot know the duration of this war, but we are prepared for the battle ahead. We cannot predict the final day of the Iraqi regime, but I can assure you– and I assure the long-suffering people of Iraq– there will be a day of reckoning for the Iraqi regime, and that day is drawing near. (Cheers and applause)
TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile in Baghdad, Iraqi officials said at least 14 people were killed when two Cruise missiles hit a heavily populated residential area in a northern part of the city.
MOHAMMED SA’EED AL-SHAHHAF: Simply, frankly, in all sincerity, they are attacking, bombarding civilian quarters. They are killing innocent people.
TERENCE SMITH: U.S. Military officials said Iraqi anti- aircraft fire might have caused the damage.
MAJ. GEN. STANLEY McCHRYSTAL: Sir, we know for a fact that something landed in the Sha’ab district, but we don’t know for a fact whether it was U.S. or Iraqi, and we can’t make any assumption on either at this point. We do know that we did not target anything in the vicinity of the Sha’ab district.
TERENCE SMITH: Earlier in the day, allied warplanes bombarded Iraq’s television station, knocking out its transmission at least temporarily. Republican Guard positions outside the city were also targeted. Late in the day, British military reported at least 120 Iraqi tanks and armored vehicles tried to break out of Basra. They came under attack from allied aircraft. In northern Iraq about 1,000 U.S. paratroopers seized an airfield late today. An army spokesman said it was part of the U.S. effort to open a new front there. There were also new air raids today near the cities of Mosul and Kirkuk, where Kurdish fighters are facing the Iraqis. We get that story from Julian Manyon of Independent Television News.
JULIAN MANYON: Night after night the U.S. Air Force is pounding targets in and around the city of Mosul. Anti-aircraft fire rises from the Iraqi guns in front of us but it is weak and ineffective. American planes are now bombing in daylight, too. Today four bombs hit the ridge line where the Iraqis are dug in. From our side Kurdish soldiers looked on eagerly but it seemed that the bombs missed their targets and soon afterwards the Iraqis were walking around in full view. The bombing is being coordinated by teams of American and British Special Forces soldiers who travel in four wheel drives guarded by Kurdish troops. The U.S. Marine general who is now in effective command of northern front today met with Kurdish and ethnic Turkish representatives. His efforts have been boosted by Turkey’s decision not to send its troops into northern Iraq, a move that could have started a separate shooting war between Turks and Kurds.
MAJ. GEN. HENRY OSMAN: Our role here is to work with all the groups in northern Iraq to help them succeed and overthrow the Saddam regime.
JULIAN MANYION: The Turkish peshmerga soldiers who went north to confront the Turks can now turn south to confront Saddam.
TERENCE SMITH: There were unconfirmed reports today of new allied casualties. Al Jazeera Television broadcast what it said were images of two dead soldiers and two prisoners of war, all British. Overall, in the war to date, at least 14 U.S. troops have been killed as a result of combat, and at least 11 more in non- combat incidents. Nine are missing, and seven are prisoners of war. At least two British troops have been killed in action and 18 in accidents. Iraq has reported 175 civilians killed and hundreds injured, including some 500 today in Nasiriyah. And the U.S. Military says it is now holding well over 4,000 Iraqi prisoners of war. Jim?
JIM LEHRER: Thanks, Terry. Now, once again, the view from inside Baghdad from John Burns of the New York Times. Ray Suarez talked with him a short while ago.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns welcome back. In the last few hours, there have been reports of huge explosions in the center of Baghdad. Did you hear them? What do you make of them?
JOHN BURNS: We certainly heard them, and we felt them. We don’t know what targets they hit. We know more or less the area where they hit, which would be about a mile from where I’m sitting right now in the Palestine Hotel, right in the heart of the government quarter Baghdad that was so heavily bombed at the outset of this war last week, particularly on Friday night. We know that there are some, if you will, unresolved targets there that the Pentagon had on a wish list in which they forgone to bomb for various reasons, including concern that there might be some civilians working in those buildings.
What I can tell you is that when those impacts came– and this is the first time this has happened– the foundations of the hotel in which I am staying– which used to be the Meridian Hotel in Baghdad, it’s something in the nature of a 20- story hotel– shook as though there had been an earthquake. You could feel the building shake and sway. So we’re talking about very large bombs indeed. We wonder if two targets that have been frequently talked about at the Pentagon in briefings the Rashid Hotel, where so many of us stayed until a week ago, and the information ministry, where we have worked, might be on the list. We have been rather doubtful that they would be struck because there didn’t seem to us to be any compelling reasons to be struck. But certainly some buildings in that area have been impacted tonight, and it’s probably only at first light that we will know what they are.
RAY SUAREZ: The Department of Defense says that it didn’t target any attacks to the area that the Iraqis are now saying was hit by Cruise missiles. Did the Iraqi government have much to say on the subject today?
JOHN BURNS: Oh, they absolutely did. The impact you are talking about, the explosions occurred something in the nature of 11:30 this morning in north central Baghdad, in a low-rent district on the main boulevard running out of the city to the north to the city of Kirkuk. We were taken there about two hours later in circumstances that made it very difficult to determine exactly what had happened — first of all, sandstorms; second of all, rain turning the sandstorm into a kind of a mud- rain. Beyond that, there was a problem that all the bodies from these blasts have been removed. Whatever has happened had happened sufficiently ahead of our arrival there, for even the cars which had been carbonized by these two explosions one on either side of the road had cooled. There was no heat left in the chassis of the vehicles that were there. So we were left in the end relying, if you will, only on what the Iraqis told us. They, of course, said that these were American bombs; later on we were told these were Cruise missiles.
What I can tell you that the craters made by these blasts were a good deal smaller certainly than anything you would expect from a Cruise missile, and certainly a good deal smaller than the big bombs that have been used in this bombing campaign. I am not an ordinance expert. I cannot tell you how a bomb crater would look different if the bomb had fallen from the air than it would, for example, if the bomb had been on the ground in the first place. I can’t tell you that. What I can tell you for certain is that about 14 people died, about 45 people were injured. They were undoubtedly civilians and that the government made of this, as you would expect, a major propaganda event. The information minister immediately summoned us to a news conference to talk about the “villainous gang” in Washington and London that is busy murdering Iraqi civilians.
We were taken to the hospitals where the doctors, I must say admirably eschewing politics, spoke only of the injuries that people had suffered. The surgical director of the hospital was interesting, I thought, the man who took us around and showed us some of the injured, in his resolute refusal even when in effect invited to do so by the questions, to make any kind of politics out of this event. He simply talked about traumatic injuries. He was not interested in attributing blame either way.
Now this evening, I learned that the Defense Department is saying they had no Cruise missiles targeted in that area. Perhaps the Pentagon isn’t absolutely sure what happened. We noticed that there was a military base, I think of not much significance, some several hundreds of yards, seven or eight hundred yards further into towards Baghdad down the boulevard. Whether that was a significant factor or not I don’t know, but in some ways the politics of this was interesting, if you will, as anything else. Of course, there was a gathering of sort of a Greek chorus as there is in every one of these incidents of Ba’ath Party officials in uniform with pistols and with Kalashnikov rifles, leading local people and men in tribal headdresses in denunciations of Bush and denunciations of the United States and singing the praises of Saddam Hussein. That we see every time.
Amongst the ordinary people there, the remarkable thing– and this is a story I tell again and again– was absolute absence of hostility. When they asked us where are you from? “I’m from England” I said. “England good country,” they would say shaking my hand. I was with Jon Lee Anderson of the New Yorker, an American. “Where are you from?” “I’m from the United States.” “America good country.” This could be only because the Iraqi citizens are decent enough and sensible enough to distinguish between government and citizen, I don’t know. Does it mean something else? As usual, there’s more we don’t know about this than we do know.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns thanks for being with us tonight.
JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure.