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Waiting for War in Iraq

March 19, 2003 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: John Burns, so good to have you with us. Tell us, what is the mood tonight on the streets of Baghdad?

JOHN BURNS: Well, you would imagine there is a great deal of apprehension. The city is quite extraordinarily quiet. It has been, in fact, since about noon on Wednesday as people headed out to country in the hundreds of thousands one suspects, all hunkered down in their basements, and a good deal of prayer, a good deal of solicitation from foreigners of insider knowledge, as if we had any, as to when the timing of the attack would come.

But along with all of this apprehension, I think America should know that there is also a good deal of anticipation. Iraqis have suffered beyond I think the common understanding in the United States from the repression of the past 30 years here. And many, many Iraqis are telling us now– not always in the whispers that we only heard in the past, but now in quite candid conversations– that they are waiting for America to come and bring them liberty.

GWEN IFILL: They are actually anticipating… eagerly anticipating war?

JOHN BURNS: It’s very hard, though, for anybody to understand this. It can only be understood in terms of the depth of repression here, and it has to be said that this is not universal, of course. Having traveled throughout Baghdad in the last few hours, I can tell that you there are occasions when people are angry– an old woman selling vegetables — somebody pulling up alongside me in a car with a Kalashnikov who made a big show of snapping a magazine into the Kalashnikov in a most menacing way. There are, of course, people who, because they are loyalists of the regime or out of fear or out of suspicion of America’s motives, don’t want this war at all. And we don’t know how numerous they are, and we also don’t know… still don’t know, given the nature of this closed society, how numerous are the others.

All I can tell you is that– and every reporter who is currently here will attest to this– that the most extraordinary experience of the last few days has been a sudden breaking of the ice here with people in every corner of life coming forward to tell us that they understand what America is about in this. They are very, very fearful, of course, of errant bombing, of damage to Iraqi infrastructure, and they are very concerned about the kind of governance… the American military governance that they will come under afterwards.

GWEN IFILL: Let me ask you…

JOHN BURNS: But there is absolutely… can I just say there is absolutely no doubt, no doubt that there are many, many Iraqis who see what is about to happen here as the moment of liberation.

GWEN IFILL: Is there any evidence that you have seen so far of a buildup, a military buildup within Baghdad itself?

JOHN BURNS: Late today, there was much more activity, a sudden deployment of troops in the streets that we hadn’t seen before. At the same time, we’re not talking about heavy fortification. We’re talking about large numbers of men being deployed with Kalashnikov rifles to bunkers that are not more than about shoulder height, sandbag bunkers built at intersections, who, of course, are not likely to have much effect against the kind of air power that is about to be deployed against them.

More difficult to tell is the nature of the fortifications outside the city. We do know that Republican Guard forces have been deployed to the outer defenses of Baghdad with increasing determination in the last few hours. So what we see in the city may be misleading, but the general impression is that for a government that looks as though it is about to confront its last stand, there has been remarkably little done in terms of fortification of the city.

GWEN IFILL: Million dollar question: Where do you think or where does anyone think Saddam Hussein is now?

JOHN BURNS: Well, we didn’t see him today. We saw a great deal of him on Tuesday in the sense that he appeared on television in a succession of three high-level meetings. And the intriguing thing about those meetings was to me, amongst other things, that he appeared to be in a bunker, a low-ceilinged room of white marble, contrasted quite distinctly with the meeting places that we usually see him in, which has been high-ceilinged, ornate chambers. This suggests to me wherever he is, he is underground. We’re told tonight by Iraq’s deputy prime minister, Tariq Aziz, who is in effect the fourth ranking man in the regime, who came over to the Information Ministry very casually, smoking on a Havana cigar, to deny that he had deflected to Iraqi Kurdistan. He told us the entire leadership is intact, the entire leadership will stay in Baghdad, what he called this glorious city of Baghdad. He says that they would be here for weeks and months to come and that American troops were about to encounter a long and bloody war.

So where will Saddam be when American troops arrive at the gates of Baghdad? Hard to say, but the same Mr. Aziz told me some months ago at the conclusion of an interview, when I said to him as we left his office in a magnificent building here, I said to him, “How does it strike you that Gen. Tommy Franks could be coming into this building to look for an office only a few months from now?” He said, “you tell”… he said, “you tell Gen. Franks for me that by the time he arrives here, he will be chasing shadows.” That rather suggests to me that Saddam Hussein and his ruling elite have gone to school on what happened in Afghanistan with Osama bin Laden — that is to say that they may just disappear.

GWEN IFILL: John, you say that the leadership of Iraq, Saddam Hussein and his lieutenants, had no intention of leaving. How long do you feel that you can safely stay in Baghdad? So many American reporters have already gone.

JOHN BURNS: And we would ourselves have made that decision in all likelihood except for problems that developed at a late moment here with leaving Baghdad. Many reporters have encountered problems of harassment, in effect banditry on the road, out of Iraq to the west to Jordan, 350 miles from here. In the end, my colleague from the New York Times and myself, along with a number of other American reporters who were also encouraged or ordered by their editors to leave, met in sort of counsel here today and decided that it was safer all in all to stay here. And our estimation is that this job of reporting on what is coming can be done safely as we have to remember it was done in the Persian Gulf War in 1991, most memorably by, of course, Peter Arnett of CNN.

GWEN IFILL: Okay, well, John Burns, we’ll be hoping and working for your safety as well. Thank you very much for joining us.

JOHN BURNS: It’s been a pleasure talking to you.