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Transfer of Custody of Saddam

June 30, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


TERENCE SMITH: John Burns, welcome back to the broadcast. I understand that today’s session, in which the Iraqi government took the legal custody of Saddam Hussein was closed, but what have you been able to learn about it? And I wonder also what Iraqis have been able to learn about it.

JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the main event is on Thursday, tomorrow. No press were permitted to attend today’s transfer of legal custody. We got the most cursory report of what actually occurred, that Saddam said, “Good morning” to the judge in a courtroom, that he was asked to identify himself: “Are you Saddam Hussein?” “Yes.” He was instructed to sit down at a table facing a judge, and then legal documents were read transferring his custody to the… that of the new Iraqi sovereign government. He did ask if he could say something. He wanted to ask some questions, and he was told that he could do that tomorrow when he will be formally arraigned by this special Iraqi tribunal constituted under the American occupation authority here to try crimes against humanity.

TERENCE SMITH: And the ordinary Iraqis, how did they hear about today’s activity and learn about it?

JOHN BURNS: Well, as you can imagine, this entire sequence is galvanizing Iraqis who arrived at the end of the occupation and the beginning of this new period of renewed sovereignty. Very uncertain of what to expect. I think there’s some excitement about this. There’s been a tremendous trauma in this country. Difficult for people who have not been in Iraq, who did not experience Iraq under Saddam, to understand just how deep that trauma is. One has the feeling that this is the beginning of a catharsis. To see Saddam brought to account before an Iraqi court by Iraqi judges and lawyers is a matter of momentous importance to them. So they’re eager to learn absolutely everything they can.

TERENCE SMITH: And I suppose there is great anticipation to actually see Saddam Hussein for the first time since he was captured back in December.

JOHN BURNS: Of course. People are absolutely transfixed by what he may say tomorrow, when he will be allowed to speak at the court hearing. Will he begin a kind of Slobodan Milosevic style of defense? Will he give a Fidel Castro kind of stem winder speech? He’s not likely to be allowed to do that. Or will he limit himself, as was implied by his appearance today as we understood it, to asking questions– that’s to say, legal and technical questions– about his rights? I think it will be very revealing how he begins this, whether he intends to try and make the trial into a political platform or not. Much will be revealed in the course of that hearing tomorrow.

TERENCE SMITH: And you are to be the pool reporter for that hearing. Do you know anything about it, where it will be, what the circumstances will be?

JOHN BURNS: No. A small group of us have been nominated– very small; I believe it’s five or six people equally divided between Arabic- speaking and English-speaking media. We have been told to make ourselves available to be taken to an American military base in the Baghdad area, from where we will be taken to a courtroom. We’ve not been told where that courtroom is, and I think you can be pretty certain that wherever it is, it will not be very close to where he’s been held, or at least we’ll never know where he’s been held, because that’s a secret that has been very carefully kept since December. And I think it’s a secret that they intend to continue to keep. What we do know is that we will be taken to a courtroom.

It may even be the courtroom where some U.S. soldiers have appeared for preliminary hearings in the Abu Ghraib torture and humiliation hearings, court-martials. We don’t know. It’s all speculation. We’ll know sometime around noon tomorrow Baghdad time. That’s about the middle of the night just before dawn on the East Coast of the United States; we’ll know about this. And as I say, we’ll begin to see how this whole process is going to evolve. I think one thing we can say for sure is wherever it’s held and however long tomorrow’s meeting… tomorrow’s hearing lasts, this is going to be of no small importance to the binding up of the wounds that have so deeply afflicted the people in this country.

TERENCE SMITH: Meanwhile, John, what’s the security situation there in Baghdad? After all, this was the day that everybody was concerned about, that there might be an increase in insurgent activity to try to upset the schedule. What’s it been like there today?

JOHN BURNS: Well, General Kimmitt, who, of course, has become extremely well-known to American television viewers as the voice of the American military authority here, was asked about this today at a hearing, at a… the daily news briefing. And he was very cautious. It has been very quiet, eerily quiet, you might say. On the day of the hand-over, 48 hours ahead of the scheduled time– that’s to say, the 28th of June, Monday– there were attacks, not a great many of them, but enough to be disturbing.Yesterday and today it’s been quiet. And they’re not quite sure what to make of this.

Of course, the hope is that the insurgents were wrong-footed by the advance of the transfer of sovereignty; that attacks on insurgent headquarters, particularly in Fallujah, where the marines have been bombing lately, going after Mr. Zarqawi- – regarded as the most dangerous of the terrorist leaders in this country– that all of this may have put the terrorists on the back foot, that… that we may be seeing a change. But General Kimmitt said, too early to tell. We can hope. But they surprised the Americans and the Iraqi people before, and they can do it again.

TERENCE SMITH: Well, obviously everybody is braced for that and for the activities tomorrow. John Burns, thank you very much.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure, Terry.