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Inside Baghdad with John Burns of The New York Times

March 20, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, welcome.

JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure, Terry.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell us, if you will, the situation in Baghdad, what it’s like there as we speak.

JOHN BURNS: We’re speaking a little bit after 3:00 in the morning in Baghdad, about six hours after the second wave of American air strikes hit the strategic heart of the city. It’s presently quiet, eerily quiet. There have been reports carried by CNN, as perhaps you know, that much heavier air strikes are to come. So everybody here is somewhat on edge, and also surprised, I have to say, that the first two waves of air strikes– that’s to say, the ones that struck just as dawn was breaking over the Iraqi capital on Thursday morning, and the ones that struck at 9:00 P.M. local time on Thursday night– were so light after we had all been prepared by Pentagon briefings to expect an enormous onslaught of what I think they call the… uh… destruction and awe, something of that nature. It hasn’t been like that so far.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Well, there’s every suggestion here that there is more to come, and more and heavier activity to come, and that’s the expectation there as well?

JOHN BURNS: It is, and it needs to be said that the Iraqi leadership, including Saddam Hussein himself, have responded to these initial strikes with a certain amount of relief and, you might almost say, smug self-assurance, because they expected something, as many Iraqi officials have told us, much more severe than the waves of air strikes, 38 days of air strikes, if I recall correctly, that they endured at the outset of the Persian Gulf War.


JOHN BURNS: It hasn’t been like that, but I think they know, for whatever they say to us publicly, I think they know that something much worse is happening. So it’s a little bit like a prize fighter who goes into a fight against a heavyweight who has a tremendous punch, and goes through the first and second rounds, and all he gets is a few light jabs.

TERENCE SMITH: Officials here are acknowledging that the first set of strikes was what they called a decapitation attack, an attempt to get Saddam Hussein himself. Is there any… do you have any sense of the damage that was caused, whether any of the leadership was injured or killed in those attacks?

JOHN BURNS: What I can tell you, Terry, is the following, and I think it’s all quite indicative. Firstly, we were not allowed– we, the reporters in Baghdad, I would say a couple hundred western newsmen, now all sequestered in a Palestine hotel on the Tigris River– were not allowed anywhere near where that strike took place in the pre-dawn hours. Secondly, the responses that followed strongly suggested that, whatever target the United States struck, it came perilously close to Saddam Hussein, and I’ll tell you why. First of all, Saddam Hussein, very unusually, appeared on television almost immediately. Usually he appears in carefully staged appearances, looking impeccably dressed and tailored, hours and hours after the event. This occasion, he was on television within three hours, looking, I thought, and so did many Iraqi officials, disheveled, tired, exhausted, like a man who’d been exposed to some kind of blast of reality. He seemed to stumble through his rather awkward and not very coherent text, and he looked like a man in shock, to tell you the truth. Now, shortly after that, the information minister called a press conference here in which he described a cowardly assassination attempt, in effect, without saying against whom it had been struck, all of which suggests that, whatever happened, the United States did come perilously close.

TERENCE SMITH: Does it also suggest, though, that Saddam Hussein might be a hard man to find these days?

JOHN BURNS: I’m sure he will be. The plan for the leadership here is not to stand and fight a last-ditch fight, but to disappear.

TERENCE SMITH: So you think that’s still possible, and that they would flee either Baghdad or the country?

JOHN BURNS: I don’t think they would flee the country. I think that would be exposing themselves to almost immediate capture, but they do have a vast network of underground bunkers and tunnels, not only in Baghdad, but in many cities and areas of Iraq. Saddam Hussein began his political career with a failed assassination attempt, in the wake of which he fled disguised as a woman, so his legend says, and hid in a well before getting across the Syrian border and reaching Egypt. I’m sure all of this is much in his mind at the moment.

TERENCE SMITH: So in theory they could evaporate into that sort of a catacomb?

JOHN BURNS: I think so, and I think that some of them think along the analogy of what happened with Osama bin Laden, Aymin al-Zawahari, and Mullah Ohmar in Afghanistan, but I think they might be miscalculating. These are people who, in my experience, are occluded from reality, including the reality that is immediately outside their palace gates. They think, I believe, that they are truly held in high regard by the Iraqi people, and my sense of it is quite otherwise, and that it would be very difficult for them to remain hidden for very long once their power has been shattered.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Now, john, there was a second round of attacks, as you mentioned. Were they more substantial?

JOHN BURNS: Very much like the first except for this time we could see the target. I was on the roof of the Palestine Hotel, which is a 24- structure, about a mile, maybe a little bit less, from the center of tonight’s attacks. The first attacks, which came out of an eerie stillness– we heard no aircraft, we didn’t hear the whistling of a Cruise missile. We suddenly saw two huge explosions, a building, a large domed building beside the Tigris River, on its southern bank, near the Ulza Muhuvia Bridge, right in the center of the strategic heart of the city, a huge fire ball. To my ear and eye, there were at least two direct strikes on this building, which then exploded with a whole series of secondary explosions, and more strikes further south and to the east of that area. The air strike lasted for about 45 minutes. The Iraqis responded as they had in the pre-dawn raids of Thursday, with haphazard anti- aircraft fire, which told us they had radar warnings. We know that. Their radar works because the air raid sirens go on before we see anything. This was followed on both occasion, both the air strikes so far, with a sort of a fireworks display of absolutely random shooting, which my guess is, as a layman, doesn’t reach more than a few thousand feet, and certainly nowhere close to any American aircraft that are carrying out those strikes.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, John Burns, thank you so much. We hope you’ll take good care of yourself, and that we’ll have you on the broadcast very soon to talk again.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a great pleasure, terry. Thank you very much.