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View from Baghdad with John Burns

March 21, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, we’re delighted to hear your voice.

JOHN BURNS: Very good to reach you too, Terry.

TERENCE SMITH: Today, of course, was the beginning of this bombing phase called shock and awe. What was it like on the ground in Baghdad?

JOHN BURNS: Astonishing. Although I hesitate to be so banal it truly was awesome. Many of us here as reporters in Baghdad watching from our hotel approximately three-quarters of a mile from the target area across the Tigris River have seen American air power in the last decade as it’s been unleashed in Bosnia and Kosovo and Afghanistan and, of course, against Baghdad in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, and we’ve seen nothing like this.

It began precisely at 9:00 P.M. after the city had waited through the long afternoon and into the evening in anticipation that something was coming because short wave radio broadcasts had brought the word that B-52s had taken off at something like 3:00 P.M. Baghdad Time from the Fairfield Air Base in England so they knew something was coming. They also knew from these broadcasts that the White House and the Pentagon had decided to ratchet up these attacks after too earlier rounds of much lighter attacks on Thursday morning and Thursday night. But when it came, precisely at 9:00 P.M. almost to the instant, the shock of what we saw was almost beyond description. It was biblical.

Building after building in this area of massive architecture that underpins Mr. Hussein’s power exploded into huge fire balls and great columns of black smoke that eventually obscured much of the horizon. It was difficult to keep count of the strikes so rapidly did they come. Many buildings were hit over and over again in the initial strikes by what appeared to be precision-guided weapons dropped from B-52s and other aircraft. And then about 90 minutes later Cruise missiles, which roared in across the city, many of them apparently falling the course of the Tigris before turning West to find their targets with this metallic whoosh that distinguishes a Cruise missile. Targets were chosen, we believe, for symbolic as much as other reasons.

Palaces — the first palace to go was the biggest and grandest of them, the Republican Palace with the great green dome situated in hundreds of acres of gardens and palm fronds. The first air strike appeared to hit at almost exactly on the dome. It was hit again and again. After that, in a sprawling presidential compound that lies again on the west side of the Tigris River for a stretch of about two miles north of the Republican Palace, one building after another went — many of them so secret we don’t even know what they were, but some of them I can identify. The Baath Party headquarters, that’s the ruling party, a huge neo imperial building — the Council of Ministers building which would dwarf almost any building in Washington. The palace that’s named for Saddam’s first wife, the mother of his two sons, the most recent of the palaces built dominated by these vast 30-foot bronze busts of Saddam dressed as the ancient Islamic warrior, Saladim. That went in the Cruise missile strikes that began at about 10:30 P.M. and it went on. We counted over 100 strikes and perhaps the most astonishing period was in the first ten minutes when there were at least 50 strikes.

We don’t know what the reaction in the city is because we’ve not been allowed to leave our hotel and in any event, although the accuracy of these smart weapons appears to be pretty terrific, it wouldn’t have been wise, we felt, to venture any closer than we already were. We were about three-quarters of a mile from the targets. And it won’t be until dawn that we get any idea of exactly how large the destruction is or of what casualties there may have been. But the assumption is that most of these buildings had already been abandoned because, of course, the Iraqis knew that a strike of devastating proportions was coming.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. What was the reaction among the Iraqi people that were around you on your side of the river?

JOHN BURNS: Well, we’ll have to wait for that too but we know what the reaction was before it was coming. And this is perhaps the most astonishing thing of all. This is a totalitarian society that has lived in utter fear of Saddam Hussein for most of the 23 years he’s been in power where poking a notebook or a television camera in front of somebody is to invite a predictable Stalinist response of praises for Mr. Hussein. We’re always known that underlying this, the repression here has created a tremendous fear and loathing for the regime. But as those B-52s neared Baghdad tonight, there were scenes in many parts of the city amongst ordinary Iraqis of anticipation more than apprehension.

I have to say sitting where I am and with Mr. Hussein, if he is still alive and still very much in charge of the government here, it would be unwise for me to say too much about this. But I think Americans can rest assured that if American ground troops reach Baghdad sometime in the next days or possibly weeks, maybe sooner than we had expected, they will find many, many Iraqis greet them as liberators from the repression they have suffered. But there will be others, of course, people tied to the regime, who will not. They will doubtlessly fight. But it was an astonishing thing today to see people. One particular individual I know quite well who said to me at mid afternoon, “When, when, when?” He said — looking to the sky. And it was plain from the look in his eyes that he meant, “When will this relieving force arrive?”

TERENCE SMITH: Truly extraordinary day. John Burns, thank you so much for describing it to us. I hope we can hear from you again tomorrow.

JOHN BURNS: Terry, it’s been my pleasure.