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John Burns: Inside Baghdad

March 30, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: And we go again, as we have every evening since the war began, to Baghdad for a conversation with John Burns of the New York Times. I spoke to him a short while ago.

John Burns, welcome once again.

JOHN BURNS: It’s pleasure, Jim.

JIM LEHRER: John, from your perspective, what’s the story of the day in Baghdad?

JOHN BURNS: The story every day is American heavy bombing of Baghdad, the city continues to shake every few minutes with missile and bomb strikes. The thing that troubled me today in particular — the thing that I’m writing about tonight — was the sense that things may be going to get out of hand on the battlefield in terms of the treatment of civilians, and prisoners of war.

As you know, on Saturday night, the number three man in the regime — Vice President Taha Yassin Ramadan — appeared at a lengthy news conference to announce in effect that Iraq was adopting a tactic of suicide bombing on a mass scale as a defensive measure against these mounting American troops just in the wake of the killing of four soldiers of the 101st Airborne division outside Najaf, the holy city of Najaf on Saturday.

This was followed today by the information minister telling us that four American tank crews and a crew of one Apache helicopter that had been destroyed. He said, in battlefield actions in the South. That these Americans had died — all of them — and had been immediately buried and henceforth, the Iraqi policy was to bury all Americans killed on the battlefield immediately. He said, with respect to their religious traditions that it wasn’t clear how in any immediate burial that could be done. It also wasn’t clear that he was sure that the identities of these Americans and the locations of the graves would be properly kept. We — and of course I don’t want to be alarmist about this but this raises questions of course as to the treatment of any Americans who may be captured. The same minister, Muhammad Sa’id al-Sahha, the information minister, who appears every day in his Ba’ath Party uniform at news conferences in the presidential hotel here, went on to talk at length about alleged American killing of civilians in a way that suggested that the context of this may be darkened; if, in fact, the Iraqis believe that American troops are killing Iraqi civilian indiscriminately, then it makes one wonder what kind of treatment American prisoners of war could expect.

JIM LEHRER: Tell me a little bit about what it is like for you to do your job as a reporter right now.

JOHN BURNS: Well, it is very restricted, as you well know, Jim. It always has been in Saddam Hussein’s Iraq. We are minded that is to say, government guides, as the information ministry calls them, accompanies us everywhere we go except for meals and then only in restaurants close to the hotel. They have now tended to restrict us to moving by bus in groups to sites of their choosing, mostly of course bombing sites, which they tell their story of outrages committed against Iraqis by the United States.

It needs to be said also I think that there have been Iraqis — Iraqis have been correct in their treatment of us — that there has been no menace towards us. There are, of course, in terms of longer term and what the situation might be if the Iraqis should conclude the war is lost. They are a long way away from concluding that and as long as they are, I think we have the assurance they’ll continue to treat us as an asset, that is to say, people who can tell their story to the world in the hope, their hope, that this will somehow persuade the American people and the American president to bring this war to a halt.

JIM LEHRER: How do you get your stories out of Baghdad to the New York Times?

JOHN BURNS: Well, for that we have to, I suppose thank the American space program and what it has brought news terms of satellite communications, the very means by which you and I are speaking at the moment. The land line telephone system in Iraq has been destroyed, at least in Baghdad, so we operate by satellite telephones and the Iraqis have become somewhat less restrictive in their rules for our using of the satellite telephones. We’re now allowed to use them in our hotel rooms. We were previously restricted to using them in the information ministry but the information ministry was destroyed by a Tomahawk Missile strike on Friday.

JIM LEHRER: Can the Iraqis listen in to our conversation now, for instance?

JOHN BURNS: You know, I don’t know whether they can or they can’t. But my attitude, whether it is Saddam Hussein’s Iraq or any of the other places I have been over the years, covering wars in authoritarian regimes, is as long as I stick to doing journalism and I talk on the telephone about the things that will be in the newspaper tomorrow morning, I see very little reason to be concerned.

JIM LEHRER: Has anybody from the Iraqi government said, hey, Burns, I didn’t like what you wrote in the New York Times this morning or I didn’t like what you said on the NewsHour last night, anything like that? Has there been any kind of suggestion that they are paying attention to what you are reporting?

JOHN BURNS: I think they do pay attention. I think under the conditions of war that there is less attention paid, and I may be a good person to speak about this because there is no question they did not much like the way that I wrote about Iraq in the weeks and months before the war. But I think there is a kind of realism that has taken over here.

I think that they are not so much concerned any longer as to whether or not we like the kind of government that Saddam Hussein has given Iraq, they know that most of us are not likely to. I think where they are concerned is whether we can accurately report the condition to which the Iraqi people are being subjected to in this war. I think now, the Iraqis however much they may have disliked our willingness in the past to go after the truth, truths they wanted us to tell the truth, I think now they want us to tell the truth. They want us to tell about what it is like for a city of five million people to be subjected to this relentless bombing. So as I say there has been a turn for the better in that respect.

JIM LEHRER: I see. Well, john, great to talk to you again tonight and we look forward it to tomorrow night and the next night and many nights to come. Thank you very much.

JOHN BURNS: Thank you so much, Jim. Good night.

JIM LEHRER: Good night.