John Burns: Inside Baghdad
[Sorry, the video for this story has expired, but you can still read the transcript below. ]
JIM LEHRER: Our daily report from Baghdad. Ray Suarez talked to John Burns of the New York Times earlier this evening.
RAY SUAREZ: And John Burns welcome. What kind of day was Saturday in Baghdad?
JOHN BURNS: Well, the principal event of the day, I think, in any event it will be making news, will be the occurrence of the three man in the regime here, Taha Yassin Ramadan, this evening in the Palestine Hotel where we journalists are staying for a news conference, with which he astonished us by, in effect, embracing the concept of suicide martyrs, saying that the suicide bomber who killed four American soldiers at a checkpoint outside Najaf earlier today was simply the forerunner of hundreds of thousands of people like this not just here in Iraq against American forces, but he said against Americans and Britons in uniform and out, and anybody who supports them right across the Arab-Muslim world. It was quite a frightening thing to listen to.
RAY SUAREZ: What argument did he use to justify that kind of warfare?
JOHN BURNS: Well, in a sense, taking it back reading from what he was saying, it was an admission of Iraq’s military weakness because he said, in effect, “look, we know we can’t beat them on equal terms in land warfare or air warfare.” And, in fact, at one point he said… “with the kind of weight of bombs…” I’m just looking at my notes here, “of the B-52s, the Americans are capable of killing an untold number of people. Do you think we Arabs can wait until we can count on that kind of weapon with bombs of our own?” “No,” he said, “all we can do is turn ourselves into bombs.” And then he said, “if the B-52 can kill 500 people in war at one time, then I’m sure the operations by our freedom fighters…” and at this point, he was talking again about the people that you and I would call suicide bombers “could be at… will be able to kill 5,000.”
Now, of course, there’s a good deal of bravado in this. But the fact is, when he talks about columns and battalions of militant young Arabs arriving here from the Gulf, from Saudi Arabia, and elsewhere in the Arab world to join the so-called “martyrs for Saddam,” the very people that have been encountering American armed forces in some strength on their drive north from Kuwait, where we’ve seen some of this. Even in this hotel, we’ve seen these young Arabs arriving here, and you don’t have to have more than a glance from them, let me tell you, to know that they’re extremely hostile.
So there are some of these people. How many of them, we don’t know. But it’s a little or it’s surprising to me, that just so soon in this war, the pretense of… well, have been stripped away so fast. In effect, the government of Saddam Hussein has embraced what the United States would call terrorism only ten days into this war.
RAY SUAREZ: You’ve used the term “a little bit of bravado” to talk about Taha Yassin Ramadan, but you’ve written of General Sultan Hashim as a serious military man whose statements have less of the politics in them. If you combine these statements that these officers have made about what Iraq has planned for Baghdad, what’s their strategy? What are they planning?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think they are planning on a grand scale the sort of thing that American forces have seen at every step on their drive north from Kuwait to Basra the towns that are now so familiar to Americans. A week ago, almost none of us had never heard of them places like Nasiriyah and Najaf of course today where the suicide bombing and the killings of the four American soldiers took place.
We’ve seen the same pattern all along the way, which is these militants ferocious, fanatical almost in many cases loyalists to Saddam irregulars driving in pickup trucks, some of them black masks, wearing black suits with mounted machine guns. They are causing a great deal of trouble. We know there are many, many of these people in Baghdad because we have seen them. This is a city of five million people. And it seems to me that they’re simply saying to President Bush bring it on. You have seen what we can do to you in Najaf and Nasiriyah; we’ll do the same to you in spades in Baghdad.
RAY SUAREZ: Is it the language of martyrdom, of self-emulation, of a battle they understand they’ll have a tough time winning, or one where the regime is speaking as if it will still be standing at the end of this confrontation?
JOHN BURNS: Well, of course it’s the latter. There’s been no acknowledgment that they’ll go down in all of this — quite the contrary; they think they will repeat — they often refer to the uprising in 1920 against the British — that there will be a kind of David and Goliath act here. But one can’t help but get the feeling — it’s very early to say this because my guess is that we may be talking now of a siege for Baghdad which will not last — as some people, and myself included — were saying a matter of weeks — could now be a matter of who knows two months or three months. So it’s some the outcome of this is some way off but I think that they think that they can do a David and Goliath act.
Now, the fact is that this is a leadership which has included itself as these totalitarian governments so often do and has been listening to its own voices, own echoes, in effect, for 30 years doesn’t really understand a great deal about our world the western world — and perhaps even at this stage they do not fully comprehend the kind of — the weight of military power that is arrayed against them. I have this feeling and I’ve been saying this for some days now that we, the West should remember the pattern of the wars we have seen in the last ten years and in particular we journalists should remember how we rated those wars in they progressed. In every case that I remember — Afghanistan — when things began to go wrong and they clearly have gone wrong here in Iraq for the first ten days — we journalists reflect immediately on what’s wrong instead of what is right. You’ll recall that only 16 months or so ago many of us were saying the war in Afghanistan could last all the way through the first winter into the spring. The Taliban could resist six months, a year, or more. Well, in fact, the Taliban went down in 37 days after President Bush began the bombing. The weight of American military power proved in the end to be overwhelming.
Now Iraq is a much, much tougher case, a much more modern country, much wealthier, much tougher in many, many ways. I’m not suggesting it can be that quick but I’m suggesting that at this point we may be overweighing what has gone wrong and under weighing from the American point of view, American military point of view, and under weighing what has gone right just as the Iraqis may be doing the opposite.
RAY SUAREZ: Some of the bombing reports that have come in and have talked about destruction of broadcast towers, microwave transmitters, telephone substations, Internet servers. Is it getting tougher to get communication in and out of Baghdad? Are you speaking from a city that is increasingly isolated?
JOHN BURNS: It certainly is that not for us journalists because we’re been permitted to used satellite telephones we jump over all of this destruction but it’s quite plain that the United States has decided to get very tough about the communication. The city, Baghdad, is now a city essentially without land line telephone communications and while the crude, mobile phone services they had until yesterday based on radio chunky style phones that Americans will remember they used in construction sites, shall we say ten , fifteen years ago, much prized by the Iraqi elite, they are out of business today, too. The purpose of course is to further isolate the Iraqi leadership. And whether that can be effective, who knows. It says that Saddam Hussein ran the resistance during the Gulf War. The Iraqis will tell you by riding around Baghdad in a Volkswagen Passat car with a single driver I find that improbable because he has always been surrounded by so much security. The legend is intended to remind us of the tremendous capacity to resist and to hide and to survive that this leadership has. This may be a man that is extremely difficult to pin down even if U.S. troops do get into Baghdad sooner than anybody expects.
RAY SUAREZ: John Burns, thanks a lot for joining us.
JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, thank you very much.