VOA Correspondent Alisha Ryu is with American Forces in Central Iraq. She spoke with London Editor Kevin Lynch.
Lynch: Alisha, we're hearing reports of explosions near Baghdad. Can you tell us anything about them?
Ryu: The explosions, we believe, are the beginning of air strikes on the Medina Republican Guard Division, which is just on the west side of Baghdad. This is a battle that has been planned for quite some time. We're not sure exactly when the ground assault will begin, but certainly this has been in the planning for quite some time. We believe there are about 20,000 Republican Guards in this division. That's about what a division is, and they're dug in around the west side of Baghdad. In the meantime, there are thousands of Marines going up toward Baghdad, that's the latest report. There are still some skirmishes in the An Nasiriyah area down in southern Iraq. There's a mopping operation going on down there with the task force.
They're basically providing some security for bridges and those kinds of things down there, and they're encountering still some small arms fire and some pockets of resistance, which they're taking care of. Other units are moving up toward Baghdad. I'm sure that further information will come out as to what those marines intend to do once they get up north, but right now we're just on the move and on the march. There is a big sandstorm here coming, but apparently that is not affecting much of the plans for today to make an assault on the Medina [Republican Guards], as far as the U.S. army is concerned. The army is determined to go after this dug-in division, which is one of the strongest in the Iraqi military. I think the U.S. Army wants to send a clear message to the rest of the Republican Guard forces out there that if we can neutralize one of these divisions, the others will get the message that maybe they should lay down their arms and not fight.
Lynch: Alisha, Secretary of State Colin Powell has said he believes Saddam Hussein would use chemical weapons against Shiite Muslims, if he thought it would serve his interests. Is there a great concern now among the troops that you can detect, that chemical weapons will be used against them?
Ryu: Yes, the U.S. troops are obviously increasingly concerned about the possible use of chemical and biological weapons by Saddam Hussein the closer they get to Baghdad. This has always been in the back of their minds that Saddam Hussein may use chemical weapons when he felt that was his last stand. And basically now, with the troops encircling Baghdad, with this assault on the Republican Guard divisions, he may feel less inclined to hold back and use chemical weapons, so most troops here, in fact all of the troops, are in at least some sort of chemical suit. They have their gas masks ready. The idea that there might be a chemical attack coming soon is certainly not far from the minds of these soldiers.
Lynch: Alisha, can you tell us something about the morale of the troops that you're with today?
Ryu: The troops here are a little bit more tense than they were yesterday. They found out, of course, that the Apache helicopter pilots, the two pilots were shown on al-Jazeera television as the prisoners-of-war, it really did not go over well with these troops. We're hoping that the pilots can be found and saved. I think that there is a greater resolve now to go out and get this objective over with as soon as possible, to reach Baghdad and go home as quickly as possible. Obviously, no one likes to see this kind of prisoner-of-war situation, especially all over television. That's something that they were not expecting, and I think that did shock a lot of people. I can't really tell you how they did that, but they [American forces] did find that Apache helicopter and destroyed it, so that no one from the Iraqi side could seize that aircraft.
Lynch: Alisha, you were talking about how the troops know that some Americans were captured and shown on television. How do the troops get information about the war? Now, they're marching toward Baghdad, and yet they are still informed about what's going on?
Ryu: A lot of these soldiers are not getting the information. Obviously, there's no television out here, there's no Internet. Obviously the command and control centers are the ones that have the information, the regular soldier does not have anything like that, so most of it is coming down by mouth, from one soldier to another. Sometimes it gets blown out of proportion, sometimes it's being reported to one another incorrectly, but for the most part I think people have a general idea of what's going on. And especially when it comes to news of prisoner-of-war or U.S. troops' casualties, they do hear about that quite quickly.
Lynch: Alisha, do you get the sense that the troops feel the war is going the way they expected?
Ryu: I think so. I think they're on a specific timeline. The weather was going to be a factor; it might be a huge factor, in fact, because of the sandstorms. Now it seems to me like they're very determined. There's been a shift in the mood in the last 24 hours about what they should be doing, and, despite the weather, they seem to be going ahead with what's on the board and they want to get this over with as quickly as possible. As far as the timeline, I think they're quite happy with the speed and the execution of it. I think they would like to accomplish a lot more in the next 36 to 48 hours.