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John Burns: Inside Baghdad

March 22, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, welcome once again to the broadcast.

JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure, Terry.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me the situation on the ground today in Baghdad, particularly as contrasted to yesterday.

JOHN BURNS: Well, tonight it’s as quiet as last night was ferocious for its American attacks. There were some daytime attacks today. We believe, although I personally have not been to see it, that one of the most important of the intelligence buildings in Baghdad was destroyed today. But tonight has been extremely quiet. Occasionally we hear in the distance the crump of what sounds like an impacting Cruise missile or a precision-guided bomb, but in the heart of Baghdad tonight it’s quiet– not

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Did this lull or relative lull give you a chance to get out and get around and see some of the damage?

JOHN BURNS: It did indeed. We went out early today. And a number of conclusions arose from that, one of which is that these munitions are, in fact, extremely accurate. The buildings that were hit in every case that I could see on the morning tour with the ministry today clearly were the ones targeted. These munitions are extremely powerful, and they, in effect, completely destroy even the largest of buildings, hollowing them out in an interesting way. The structures themselves rarely collapse, but everything inside is gone.

TERENCE SMITH: Could you tell, John, the pattern of these targets, beyond Saddam Hussein himself? 

JOHN BURNS: Yeah, I mean, we didn’t get a complete list of them because some of these buildings the Iraqis who talked to us profess themselves not to know exactly what they are, but they included two palaces of Saddam’s: The Republican Palace, which is the principal one, the al-Sajida Palace, named for his wife, the most recently constructed of them. They included several police, security, and intelligence buildings, some military buildings, and they included a very interesting structure, which was hit harder than any other as we observed it last night. And it happened to be probably closer than any other to where we were witnessing these attacks. This is a sort of slab-sided building about ten stories high that’s in the middle of a presidential compound immediately opposite us across the Tigris River from the hotel in which we are lodged. And it was clear, and I think I mentioned this last night, that this particular building was being hit with a vengeance. Well, we discovered today that it’s the presidential office.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. Let me ask you this, John. In terms of casualties– because there’s already been some discussion about that– what did you learn today in terms of Iraqi casualties or any casualties, really, as a result of the bombing?

JOHN BURNS: We got various figures, but when you conflated them, it looked as though something in the region of two hundred to two hundred and fifteen people wounded. They said three dead. We were given no details on the dead. We did see the injured. The injured looked to my eye in a hospital in western Baghdad as though some of them may indeed have suffered blast damage from missiles or bombs, but that many of them may have been injured by falling anti-aircraft fire. There’s this enormous barrage of anti-aircraft ordinance that goes up into the sky whenever the air raid sirens go off. Sometimes you see this ordinance rising and falling over a period of 20 minutes or half hour before the first missile or bomb falls.

TERENCE SMITH: These were being presented to you as injuries caused by the bombing.

JOHN BURNS: They were. They were. And I don’t exclude that some or maybe even quite a substantial number of them were, but many of the injuries were fairly light. Some of them were not so light. There were some burn injuries. But what was excluded from this was any sign of any military casualties. We were shown a lot of women, children, middle-aged men. But many of the buildings hit were clearly under guard by military personnel, and we were not shown any of that. My guess is that quite a lot more– there’s some odd inversion here– my guess is that quite a lot more than three people were killed, and the people who were killed were military people. And we were not shown anything about that because the buildings were in secured areas, and because to show just how substantial the damage to principal government buildings in Baghdad was would be a morale-lowering enterprise. And there’s much that needs to be said about the situation right now that we do not understand.

Amongst the things we don’t understand, of course, is the exact whereabouts, and you might even say the health, of Saddam Hussein who has not spoken again, although he appeared on television tonight here in Iraq, state television, with some other members of the leadership. But it was not at all clear that the film that was shown is a current film. But when the information minister was asked today at a news conference by an American reporter, “Why has Pres. Saddam Hussein not… when will he make a new address to the people?” — the question was sharply cut off by the information minister saying, “next.” And when he was asked about two questions later by somebody else in English, “have you personally seen Pres. Saddam Hussein since the bombing started?” The reaction was even more vigorous– “next, next. Why do you not ask a reasonable question?” It raised in my mind the question as to why there would be such sensitivity about a question about the health and whereabouts, which should be easy to answer.

TERENCE SMITH: Right. It does raise some questions. It’s one of any number of still unanswered questions. But John Burns, thank you so much for helping us.

JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure. Thank you, Terry.