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A Report from Southern Iraq

March 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: Dexter Filkins, welcome.


TERENCE SMITH: We are pleased to hear from you again. In the 24 hours since we spoke with you, Dexter, you’ve made some progress. Tell us where you are now, and how you got there.

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, we’re in Safwan Iraq, which is really a town on the border with Kuwait. I must say, it took us much of the day to get here. There was a lot of fighting in the morning. There were helicopter gunships all over the place. Some of them, I must say, were looking at the car I was driving in a little too closely, but they kept going — tanks moving up; troops moving up; a lot of stuff going over the border. Eventually we came across… came into Safwan, and found this really extraordinary scene.

I mean — image after image just comes to mind. It’s dark here. It’s late here. I’m looking out over an orange glow on the horizon of what appears to be a burning oil well. And surrenders today that we saw: Iraqi soldiers, tanks moving up and down the road, you know, people, civilians, wounded from some strikes, hobbling up the road. Just… you know, marines, U.S. Marines, coming into the town and being greeted sort of joyously, and then proceeding to tear down posters of Saddam Hussein — and so just an amazing day.

TERENCE SMITH: How much organized resistance did the units encounter?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I’ll tell you about a conversation I had with a Marine major today, and he said they were surrendering, the Iraqis were surrendering, so fast, that is, they couldn’t really keep up with them. So he said, you know, “for a lot of the guys, we just take their guns and tell them to go home.” That was confirmed… I mean, I was walking around town talking to Iraqi guys standing around in blue jeans, you know, saying, “I was a soldier this morning, and when my commanders ran, I decided to run, too, and you know, threw my gun down and got out of there.”

So… and everybody seems to confirm that although there is… there doesn’t seem to be any kind of organized resistance, but there does seem to be a lot of pockets of resistance, because when I got up this morning, for example, these cobra gunships were just blasting, you know, and firing away at these pockets. You could see them firing rockets, and the artillery barrages were continuing throughout the day.

TERENCE SMITH: What was the reception the troops got from the people of Safwan when they entered the village?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, you know, I was in Afghanistan in 2001, and I remember when the Northern Alliance came in and threw the Taliban out, it was utterly euphoric and joyous. And here, I have to say, the emotion is more complicated. They are happy. I think they’re very, very happy. I mean, people are coming out and just gushing with emotion today.

But there’s been so much pain here — I mean, the stories that you hear, just in the course of walking around for a few hours, about, you know, family members killed by the regime. And there’s been so much pain here, and I think, you know, if you remember back to 1991, there was an uprising all across southern Iraq, and which was encouraged by the American government, and people rose up here, and they thought they would be free then, and Saddam came back, and he crushed them ruthlessly. And so there’s a sense here that, you know, “how do we know this one is the one that’s real, and it’s going to stick?” And so it’s very complex, but still it’s overpowering, and you see all these emotions often in one conversation with one person.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. And the U.S. and British units, are they moving forward and driving up towards Basra or their next target?

DEXTER FILKINS: Yes, they are. We’re sitting — we’re just camped on the highway here, and I have to say, there has been a steady stream, unending stream of tanks, Howitzers, troops. They’re all moving out. There really aren’t that many marines around here in Safwan now – kind of here and there. But, yes, they’re moving a lot of stuff up there. So I would think there is going to be a big run there or a big fight, because there are a lot of troops on their way up there.

TERENCE SMITH: You mentioned that you could see an orange glow, and it appeared to be oil wells on fire. How big a problem is that? Can you tell from where you are?

DEXTER FILKINS: Well, I have to say it doesn’t appear to be from here, but that’s a big orange glow on the horizon, and that may be more than one well. And so I should say, it is hard to tell. When I was coming in this morning, I noticed, you know, watching… as I watched the helicopters fly up and down, there was a lot of black smoke, you know, all across the horizon. So I, you know… there’s got to be more than one on fire. I don’t know how many.

TERENCE SMITH: Okay. Dexter Filkins, thank you so much for talking with us. I hope you’ll be able to talk with you all in one piece this time tomorrow.