John Burns: The Final Days in Baghdad
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TERENCE SMITH: John, welcome. We’re delighted to see and hear you again. This latest tape purportedly of Saddam Hussein, do you believe it’s genuine? Do you believe he’s still alive? Do have you any idea where he is?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I have a disadvantage in that I have not seen the tape, but I have spent many hours up in Azamiyah, the area where he was supposedly sighted last Wednesday talking to people who said that they did see him. And from those descriptions, I was pretty well-satisfied that it was Saddam Hussein.
TERENCE SMITH: And, indeed, do you think he’s still alive and still in Baghdad?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think we have to remember that this is the great survivor. This is a man who has survived countless assassination attempts, two heavy bombing attacks by the United States on locations within Baghdad that were identified by American intelligence as the locations of leadership meetings on March 20, the strike that began the war, and then again on April 7. I think Saddam Hussein probably is alive, and I think purely deductive this, but my guess is that he is probably still in Baghdad.
TERENCE SMITH: Wouldn’t that be quite a feat to evade all the American forces and all the people who are looking for him?
JOHN BURNS: It would be. But this is a city of five million people. Think of an American city of that size and a manhunt for one individual who has the advantage, in this case, of moving in certain areas of the city amongst people who still support him. This is somewhat counter- intuitive, because people like myself have been reporting for many months now about the widespread hatred of Saddam Hussein. But the interesting thing… one of the interesting things about his appearance outside the mosque in Azamiyah last Wednesday was that he chose an area that is 100 percent Sunni Muslim, in a country which, as you know, what has got a 60 percent Shiite Muslim majority. It is one of very rare places in Baghdad where there is a Sunni Muslim majority, and it’s also a place where the Ba’ath Party, the ruling party under Saddam Hussein, has a long history and a long underground history in the years when it was a persecuted party. There are other areas of Baghdad like that, and the people of Azamiyah said to me when I was up there with them three days ago, they said, “Let’s assume that Saddam Hussein was still here amongst us. No amount of money and no amount of pressure would persuade us to give him up.”
TERENCE SMITH: And the others in his regime from Tariq Aziz on down, do you expect that they are in hiding somewhere as well?
JOHN BURNS: I’m sure they all made their plans. To speak of Tariq Aziz, in particular, when I saw him for an interview in November, as I recall, in the Council of Ministers Building, 1,000 yards from where I’m now standing, across the Tigris River, a building that was one of the many that was destroyed by American bombings. As we were walking out, it being a rather grand imperialist colonnaded building, I said to him as he puffed on his cigar, How does it feel for you to contemplate General Franks coming into this building a few months from now to select his headquarters?” He said, “You tell your friend General Franks that by the time he arrives in this building, he will be chasing shadows.” I took it that what he was referring to was plans already in place at that time for the Iraqi leadership to simply vanish.
TERENCE SMITH: And indeed that seems to be the case. Last night, John, when we were talking with you and lost the satellite connection, you were describing how the roles have reversed in Baghdad. Some of the Iraqis, I gather, that were making your life difficult before coming to the marines looking for jobs. What’s happened on that front?
JOHN BURNS: Yeah, it’s very interesting. The minders, of whom we’ve written and referred to so often, are now back by the score; that is to say the information ministry officials whose job was to guide and control us, and to report on everything we did and to report, more importantly, on everything any Iraqi said to us– always with the threat that those Iraqis would be arrested, taken away to prison and never be heard again– those minders are now back here in force right here at the Palestine Hotel from where I’m speaking. And there are two schools of thought on this. I think the prevailing one and probably the correct one is that in a society ruled by terror such as this, people really didn’t have a choice about whether they served the master or they didn’t. The differentiating factor of importance to me is whether those minders and other senior officials, some of whom have also returned here, did this with relish or with grace; that is to say with grace towards us. I, personally, as the bureau chief, for the time being at least, for the New York Times here, will entertain job applications from those who were at least gracious and as friendly as they could be. I won’t from those who seemed to enjoy, if you will, the persecution of us and of Iraqis who spoke to us.
TERENCE SMITH: Do they in any way apologize or even explain away their behavior before?
JOHN BURNS: They do. And it’s a sad thing to receive letters of which I’ve received perhaps half a dozen in the last three or four days, pass through the marine security around this hotel, apologies, abject apologies, explanations of the terrible state in which their families now found themselves, worries that they will be permanently unemployable, and so forth. You know, I think that we, like the United States government itself, which has produced, as I understand it, a list of 55 top leaders who are wanted, and excluded from the lists all manner of people who are pretty senior in this government, it seems to me our job insofar as it matters– we’re a group of a few hundred reporters with perhaps a few thousand jobs at our disposal– our job, I think, is to be magnanimous.
TERENCE SMITH: And to do it with no hard feelings?
JOHN BURNS: To do it with no hard feelings. In my case, I have an interest in talking to some of the more senior people who I know are now back at their homes in Baghdad; have come out of hiding. They’re not on the list of the wanted from the United States. I’m interested in talking to some of these people to try and understand from them why they did what they did, in particular in the last two weeks of the war with me– why they turned me into a, if you will, a hunted person. I don’t want to make myself into a victim of this. As I think I said to you last night, there are 24 million Iraqis who suffered more every day than I ever suffered from this. I never thought that they were going to put a noose around my neck. But I would like to know, simply for peace of mind in the future, that one or two individuals, in particular the director general of the information department, who was, if you will, our headmaster, whether some of the very unpleasant things he did were done because he had no choice or were done because he believed them to be right. Now I may be naive that any discussion with this man will be productive. But I am going to seek him out and have a conversation, and I’ve told him in a note that my purpose is not, in any event, to be triumphal or gloat over the changed power relationship that now exists. I simply am interested to know what was in his mind.
TERENCE SMITH: Well, we’ll be fascinated to hear the answer as well, John. Just finally before we go, what’s the situation in Baghdad tonight as you speak? Is it even approaching normal?
JOHN BURNS: It’s a long way to go. I think that the United States has an enormous task ahead of it here. I would imagine that it’s a task of years, not of months. I think simply putting together any kind of credible Iraqi administration here is going to be extremely difficult. And it seems to me that the real test of the United States will be as quickly as possible to restore utilities, schools, hospitals. This is a doable job. The United States can do this, has already got plans in hand to do it. And I think the mood of the people, which is at the moment confused, as one of my colleagues wrote the other day, “one eye laughing and one eye crying,” will begin to change for the better from the American point of view once those basics are attended to.
TERENCE SMITH: All right. John Burns, thank you so much. We hope to continue to hear from you from Baghdad.
JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Terry.