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John Burns: Inside Baghdad

March 28, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


MARGARET WARNER: John, welcome. When we spoke last night, when you called an astonishing new wave of bombing had just begun. Have you been out to see the damage?

JOHN BURNS: We have. We have been out looking at telephone exchanges that were destroyed, and I mean absolutely obliterated by bunker buster bombs dropped, we’re told by B-2 bombers. But an event of greater significance to us as reporters here appears to have happened within the last hour or so, and that, we are told, is the destruction of the information ministry. We had been alerted to this some days ago by a Pentagon warning that we should stay clear of the information ministry.

We were then told that that deadline for that had been extended by 24 and as of tonight, 48 hours. I cannot see the information ministry from where I am. But I know that the Associated Press has a photograph taken from a balcony on another side of this hotel of an enormous explosion that took place in the immediate vicinity of where the information ministry is. So it looks as though that is gone as of tonight.

MARGARET WARNER: And why would the information ministry be a target? What happens out of there other than, I gather, many western journalists work there, at least part of the day?

JOHN BURNS: Well, we do. And the fact that there are no American television networks presently in Baghdad as of their own right is a direct result of this because they, having heard the Pentagon warning for the first time a month ago or more, decided they want to move their transmission facilities off the roof of the ministry. They were refused permission to do that. They were specifically refused permission to remove their large dishes which forced some of them, CNN included, to default to the use of videophones from the hotel and that was banned when some of the networks were found using videophones from the hotel. That really was the end of the presence here of American networks.

As for what else goes on in that ministry, we don’t know. It is a huge building. It is atypical of information ministries in authoritarian countries. It is really a propaganda ministry if you will. And there is much that goes on in there that we really don’t know, but it has to be said that the people we have come to know well over the past years in the information directorate that deals directly with the foreign press, they work there and we have been telling them for some days that they should not be there late into the evening. And we are hoping, praying actually, that people we have come to know and like, indeed anybody who was in there as a civilian employee, was wise enough not to be in the building tonight. The impact took place something in the order of ten past 1:00, a quarter past 1 in the morning Baghdad time. So I think that most of them would have been away from there.

MARGARET WARNER: Will it have any impact on Iraqi state television, though, and on the ability of the Iraqi regime, wherever it is, to continue communicating over Iraqi state television?

JOHN BURNS: Well, as you know, when they’ve gone, the TV and radio headquarters which is immediately adjacent to the information ministry on the west bank of the Tigris River in the center of Baghdad, 72 hours ago, two of the three state television channels were back on the air within five hours of that bombing. We are told that they have other work-arounds, although it seems to me that eventually they’re going to be put out of business. Whether the bombers hit the information ministry, assuming that is confirmed tonight and we are not in the position to get out of the hotel at this hour and drive over there, even if we were brave enough to do it, whether that bombing also struck at adjacent interest radio/TV center, I don’t know but I think it is pretty certain that Saddam Hussein will not long be allowed to go on broadcasting to his people.

MARGARET WARNER: Finally John, and I think somewhat briefly and we can get back to this tomorrow night, but there is a lot of focus on the humanitarian situation in southern Iraq. What is it like in Baghdad for average Iraqis in terms of food, water, electricity, phone?

JOHN BURNS: Yeah, I think there is a good deal of nervousness today after the three principal domestic telephone exchanges in Baghdad were destroyed by bunker busting bombs in a 36-hour period leading up to Friday morning Baghdad time. Most domestic land line telephones are gone. It is the first attack on infrastructural utilities of importance to ordinary Iraqis. After they went tonight, people began to worry that they would lose electrical power and that they would lose their water. My guess is that that will not happen. After 1991, it has a very adverse effect on public opinion here. They’re much less concerned about radio and television. Many of them don’t spend much time watching state television anyway.

As for good, the government has seen to it that six months of rations through the United Nations Oil for Food program had been delivered in advance of the war and most people have got food supplies that will last them. They’re a little worried about whether they will last if there is a prolonged siege, but as of right now, we don’t see any signs of hunger, and we don’t see any signs of shortage of water or people resorting to water sources that raise the problem of typhoid, cholera or the other sorts of things we are historically familiar with sieges.

MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, thank you so much again.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, thank you.