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John Burns: Inside Baghdad

March 23, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, welcome once again.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Terry.

TERENCE SMITH: Tell me about the day in Baghdad.

JOHN BURNS: Well, it’s been a very interesting day. I think many Americans will have seen this curious incident that developed beside the Tigris River in the center of Baghdad this afternoon with the missing pilot, the pilot who was supposed to have bailed out from high altitude from his stricken aircraft, British or American, who parachuted– so the people in central Baghdad were saying– straight into the Tigris River, straight into the river, the size of the area that was absolutely obliterated by American bombing and Cruise missiles on Friday night through Saturday morning and this astonishing air raid of which we’ve spoken on previous nights. Whether there ever was any stricken plane or any pilot we never learned, although tonight, late tonight, Sunday night, soldiers were still shooting into the river, still setting the bulrushes alight.

But the really intriguing thing to me was the whole thing turned into a Sunday afternoon entertainment. And the factors about that that were revealing were these: First of all, amongst the crowd were several thousand people who gathered on the bridge at a time when B-52s were crossing overhead and dropping sticks of bombs on targets not a few miles’ distance, where it seemed absolutely certain that they weren’t going to be hit, and they were standing on a bridge. So the people of Baghdad have learned quickly from this war that unlike 1991, there is going to be no destruction of infrastructure, or there hasn’t been yet. No bridges have gone down, no power stations have gone down that we’re aware of. The telephone exchange still runs. The water still runs. This is very encouraging to ordinary people. The bombs and the Cruise missiles are, as far as we can see, overwhelmingly hitting military and political targets. That’s the first thing.

Second thing was the attitude of the people watching this, the hard men, the men doing the searching, the men firing into the river, the frogmen going under the water, the people setting light to the bulrushes, obviously wanted their man and they wanted him badly. But many of the people on the bridge saw it another way. To my mind it was like a boxing match. There’s the over card in this match. It’s the heavyweight– the United States– against the sure loser, Iraq, as many Iraqis see it, whatever the government says. But this was a fight on the under card, a much smaller, more understandable event, in which the Iraqis came to the ring with an even or better than even chance.

Along with this we have had two other very intriguing events: Two major cross – current — the number three man in Saddam Hussein’s government – Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan — suddenly showed up at the press center this morning – a very rare event for somebody so high in the government to come to us. We very, very rarely see these people. And he spoke at great length and with great bitterness about Iraq having about abandoned. His particular vitriol was directed towards Kofi Annan, the secretary general of the United Nations, who has become a sort of running dog of the Americans, in his telling, for failing to organize a Security Council condemnation of the war.

Other Arab countries were staying silent for not supporting Iraq, for suppressing protests in their streets. This was accompanied later tonight by a press conference, entirely different mood, given by the defense minister, who gave his account of how the battle was doing. It was a very detailed, sector- by-sector account, and very basically, it boils down to this: “We’re holding our own against the Americans when we can fight them– in Umm Qasr, in Fawa, in Nasiriyah, and elsewhere– but they don’t want to fight us very much. What they’re doing is they’re coming to towns like Nasiriyah, they’re encountering resistance, losing tanks, armored personnel carriers, prisoners, and then they’re skirting us and driving p to the desert.” He said, “That’s fine. They can go on doing that. They can go all the way to northern Iraq, they can go all the way to Europe if they want, but eventually, if they want to win this war, they’re going to have come to the cities, they’re going to have to come to Baghdad, and when they come to Baghdad, it’ll be a different matter, and then they’re going to pay a very heavy price in blood.”

What all this means in terms of the real mood of the government is very difficult to tell. Finally there was an extraordinary exchange about Saddam Hussein himself. As you may know, he’s appeared on television here in recent nights, but unconvincingly, because many Iraqis believe it may be all film. But when I asked Taha Yassin Ramadan, the vice president, at the news conference whether he would convey to the president our request to meet the president to discuss the war with him, he replied that the president would not make any such appearance, would not appear on television, but would be making radio speeches from time to time. This makes Pres. Saddam Hussein even more evanescent than he has always been, and it raises questions as so what really happened last Thursday morning when the war began, with the targeted strike.

TERENCE SMITH: Indeed it does. Now I must ask you… we’re almost out of time, but I must ask you, john, about the… I believe Iraqi television showed footage, did it, of American prisoners of war?

JOHN BURNS: It did. And as you will see on your U.S. screens, it was extremely stark and very frightening, first of all for the very uncertain situation facing those prisoners, although the defense minister did say tonight that not only does Iraq observe the Geneva Conventions on prisoners, but that it has Arab and Islamic traditions of treating foreigners, and even their enemies, with respect.

TERENCE SMITH: How many prisoners were shown on television?

JOHN BURNS: I would say… the camera kept wandering around, but I would say that there were five or six or seven. The bodies which, perhaps for reasons of taste, will not be shown, so clearly on American television, they were more numerous. And that was very distressing to see. You could see the dog tags, you could see the wounds. And there was some disrespect to one man, I felt, from an Iraqi guard, turning one of the bodies over. But I think it has to be said-we don’t know where this occurred exactly; perhaps you do– but I think it has to be said that the defense minister was very clear in saying that “we will observe the Geneva Conventions,” and hope that that proves to be true.

TERENCE SMITH: All right, John Burns, thank you so much once again for giving us that sense of what it’s like there in Baghdad, and please take care of yourself.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Terry.