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Report from Baghdad

January 8, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


JIM LEHRER: Our Iraq update. Ray Suarez talked earlier today with John Burns, chief foreign correspondent for The New York Times.

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns, welcome. Has the U.S. military confirmed the cause of today’s helicopter crash?

JOHN BURNS: They have not, as far as I know. It’s now past midnight here in Baghdad, quite a long way past midnight. What we have is witnesses at the scene who, as so often before, have told us that they saw a missile, a rocket strike the helicopter, and the helicopter came down. Considering where the helicopter came down, close to where a Chinook chopper came down in November, right in the heart of the Sunni Triangle, I think it’s overwhelmingly likely that this was enemy fire that brought this chopper down.

RAY SUAREZ: There were also reports that somebody on the ground almost got lucky and a transport was hit?

JOHN BURNS: That’s correct. That may be a still more threatening development today. A C-5 Galaxy transport taking off out of Baghdad with, I believe, 63 people onboard, and the initial indications are that it may have been struck by a ground-to-air missile. This is extremely serious. These are very big aircraft. Of course, the entire 125,000-man complement of the United States military here depends on this air transport bridge. And were they able to bring down one of those aircraft, or indeed any large fixed-winged aircraft, it would be a major … a major event and a major, you would have to say, success for these insurgents.

RAY SUAREZ: Over the last couple of days, General Sanchez has been telling reporters that the number of attacks, the number of clashes with resisters on the ground in Iraq has started to drop. But even if that’s so, have some of these attacks been even more deadly than usual?

JOHN BURNS: Yeah, I think they probably are. We’ve been told that there’s a kind of up-tick, as one of the generals here in Baghdad described it, in the sophistication of these attacks. There seem to be far fewer people engaging in these attacks. In the area where the helicopter came down today, General Swannack, the commander of the 82nd Airborne Division, was telling us the other day that he thought that in an entire province, a huge province stretching as far west as the borders of Syria and Jordan from south of Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi, there may be as few as a hundred people. But if those hundred people are getting more sophisticated and are using sophisticated weapons like ground-to-air missiles, then you’d have to ask, is there a great deal of difference between an average of 20 attacks a day, as there has been, for example, out there in the Sunni Triangle area, the 82nd Airborne area, and the three to five attacks a day, which General Swannack referred to a couple of days ago? It could be that the scale of the operation in terms of the numbers of people involved is diminishing as the American forces get more successful in striking them. There’s certainly been some very, very heavy offensives against them recently, but that those who have escaped the net are getting a lot cleverer at what they’re doing.

RAY SUAREZ: Earlier in the week, the U.S. administrator, Paul Bremer, announced a release of detainees from American captivity. Has that release begun?

JOHN BURNS: Well, yes and no. About 100 people were released from the Abu Ghraib prison about 15 mills west of Baghdad today. There was some confusion as to whether they were the first hundred of the 500 people to be released from a pool of over 12,000 detainees, or if, as some American officials said, they were another group who had been held for shorter periods of time and were part of a general kind of recycling of people in and out of there.

But what was interesting was, whichever it was, that for those of us who are at Abu Ghraib last Oct. 20 — Oct. 20, 2002, there was an extraordinary echo. Saddam Hussein emptied his prisons into the streets of Baghdad on that day, as a riposte to President Bush, who had described him as a murdering tyrant not long before in a speech. He deposited tens of thousands of criminals, as well as many political prisoners, onto the streets of Iraq.

Today everything was reversed. It was Americans releasing Iraqis. When Saddam Hussein released his prisoners, nobody dared speak out against Saddam, I can tell you that. Today — make of it what you will — some of those who came out and were driven in trucks to a highway underpass about a mile from the gates of Abu Ghraib Prison, which is now called the Baghdad Correctional Facility, with American troops at watchtowers at every corner. This is a place which was the single most feared place in Iraq under Saddam Hussein. Those people who were driven and freed from the trucks at the highway underpass, some of them — not all of them — said, “Well, we’re free now, and we’re going to attack the Americans wherever we can” — does not bode well.

RAY SUAREZ: In advance of today’s release, a lot of family members spoke to reporters who were also waiting to see what would happen. If you are a family member who believes a father, a brother, a son is incarcerated by the Americans, is it easy to find out where they are, whether they’re being held?

JOHN BURNS: I would say, from what reporters were told today by those who were released, that the answer is no. There were families waiting out there, and this was … I have to say on a far, far smaller scale, with a disturbing echo, again, of Oct. 20, 2002, the Saddam release from that prison. The prisoners held under Saddam perhaps 100,000 prisoners, many of them political prisoners — and when that release occurred, there were women, in the main, but tens of thousands of them in their black cloaks and black hoods, running across the dusty floor of the prison compound — it’s a vast compound — appealing to Allah for sight of their long-lost husbands, sons, fathers. They … most of them were never to find them.

Today, what we heard was on a much smaller scale, was distress amongst family members, particularly women, who had turned up in the hope of finding young men who they thought had been picked up in American raids, and it was evident that they did not know where those young men were. It wasn’t clear to me from these accounts whether or not these people simply didn’t know where to go to ask, which is another problem — communications is a huge problem here — but there clearly is a problem, and again, it’s something that you would think will have to be sorted out if it’s not going to become yet another in the many problems that the American administration here faces.

RAY SUAREZ: John Burns joining us from Baghdad, thanks a lot.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure.