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Inside Iraq

October 30, 2002 at 12:00 AM EST
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RAY SUAREZ: Now, a report from inside Iraq. It comes amid two days of intense diplomatic activity. The chief United Nations arms inspector, Hans Blix, met with President Bush. The President pressed again for tough inspections in Iraq, and for ridding the country of weapons of mass destruction. And the United States continued negotiations with other Security Council members on the wording of a new U.N. resolution against Baghdad. But the U.S. warned again it would act alone in Iraq if the U.N. does not. Terence Smith takes the story from there.

TERENCE SMITH: Joining me now is John Burns, a foreign correspondent for the New York Times. He returned to London today after nearly three weeks in Iraq, where he witnessed, among other things, the startling release of thousands of political prisoners from Iraqi jails.

John Burns, welcome. As you heard earlier, the Bush administration continues to press for a new U.N. resolution authorizing inspectors in Iraq. If that is passed, as now seems the case, do you think Saddam Hussein’s government will accept the inspectors?

JOHN BURNS: I do. I do. I think everything I saw in the last three weeks suggest that they’re in a sort of survival mode. That they’re battening down the hatches, the purpose being to sustain survival of the regime. Whatever is necessary to do that, they will do. I don’t think there is… for all of the, you might say, potentially the opposite. I don’t think that Saddam Hussein’s regime believes in truth that I could survive a war with the United States and in consequence of which they will, I believe, make whatever concessions are necessary to survive, and first and foremost amongst those will be to accept the weapons inspectors under whatever mandate United Nations chooses to pass.

TERENCE SMITH: Even to the point of giving them free and unfettered access to the country and the places they want to go to?

JOHN BURNS: I believe so. I had a number of conversations with senior people in the government of Iraq, Tariq Aziz principally amongst them, the deputy prime minister, and it was quite notable that for all of his objections to the particulars of the proposal the United States has put before the Security Council, the phrase that continued to come up throughout our conversation over two hours was “Iraq is prepared to admit the weapons inspectors.”

When I specifically said, “Are you prepared to accept this condition or that condition,” there was only one condition that he specifically objected to and that was the United States stipulation that weapons scientists be uplifted out of Iraq as desired, as required, with their families for questioning outside Iraq. He said– this might be some sort of indication of where an Iraqi objection maybe raised once the weapons inspectors are there– that they wouldn’t… they couldn’t imagine that anybody would insist on weapons inspectors leaving the country against their will. But I think there was no mention of objection to the other specific requirements of the United States. For example, on the palaces, they say welcome to inspect the palaces. They inspected them before, and they won’t find anything there. I think you mind whatever mandate is passed, they will accept.

TERENCE SMITH: And the mood among the Iraqi people that you were able to talk with, are they apprehensive?

JOHN BURNS: Yeah. Reading the mood of the Iraqi people has always been a rather obscure science, because as you know if you point television camera or a notebook at an Iraqi in the presence of the ubiquitous minders of the information ministry, you’ll get a very predictable answer. They love Saddam Hussein, they oppose the United States, they believe that the weapons inspection issue is simply a pretext for toppling the regime, they’re 100 percent for Saddam Hussein, and so forth.

But some remarkable things are happening there. I believe that the pressures applied by the Bush administration have entirely changed the dynamics of power within Iraq already. The people are beginning to speak out in ways that they didn’t. It’s all paradoxical of course, because within the last two weeks, Saddam Hussein had himself reelected ostensibly by 100 percent of 11.4 million votes cast by the Iraqis in 100 percent turnout in the Presidential referendum. Of course, nobody in the outside world is likely to give much credence to that. But just as that result was announced, we as foreign correspondents in Baghdad were beginning to notice that to a much greater degree than ever before individual Iraqis, at considerable risk to themselves, were prepared to approach us at moments of distraction for our minders to give their real opinions, and my sense is that there is of course a core around the regime who will defend it at any cost. Typically, they’re called the Tikritees– the city of Tikrit from which Saddam Hussein himself comes, northwest of Baghdad– they will stick with him. Many of the top people will in the regime, the Republican Guard, probably will.

There will be a fight in the United States invades Iraq, but I think as to the opinion of the people of Iraq, I think you can assume that there are very large number of people in Iraq who are unhappy in some considerable degree with the way the country has been governed in the last 23 years by Saddam Hussein, and that their opinions will be quite other than those of the government.

TERENCE SMITH: In the midst of your visit there was this extraordinary amnesty announced. I wonder what was behind that and what it led to in your view.

JOHN BURNS: Well, I remember a game that we used to play when I was a youngster in school. Three men and a balloon, and who gets thrown out first. It seems to me the government of Iraq considers itself, whatever it may say in the face of American military power, to be in a balloon that is descending rather rapidly and are prepared to abandon whatever can be abandoned. I think the prison amnesty– which was a quite remarkable thing, I don’t know of any precedent for this in any totalitarian states certainly that I’ve ever been to.

Saddam Hussein has had an enormous number of people in his prisons, certainly tens of thousands by every human rights account. In the particular prison that we were in the day the amnesty was announced, Abu Ghraib, which is the most notorious of Iraq’s prisons about 20 miles west of Baghdad, there were about 20,000 prisoners. At noon on a Sunday, we were summoned at no notice to the information ministry and driven 120 miles an hour along the motorway west to the prison, where they announced that the President to thank the people of Iraq for reelecting him in the referendum was going to amnesty almost the entire prison population — everything from petty thieves to motorists to political prisoners.

Before this could be put into effect at Abu Ghraib, a crowd, an enormous crowd had gathered of people who knew their relatives to be in the prison and others who had long lost track of relatives who had been arrested over the years, detained and simply disappeared, who they hoped they may discover within the vast prison compound– a mile square on the desert floor west of Baghdad– that they might find their long-lost brothers, husbands, and sons.

TERENCE SMITH: In fact, some of the pictures that your photographer Tyler Hicks took show these crowds pressing in to the prison.

JOHN BURNS: Well, the crowds… I mean, if you look for analogies, I suppose in the long sweep of history the storming of the Bastille would not be a bad one.

TERENCE SMITH: Right.

JOHN BURNS: I don’t think Louis invited the crowd to come to the Bastille in the way that Saddam Hussein did, but what happened was that what had been arranged as a sort of propaganda exercise, in my view, which is to say “okay, Mr. Bush you said in your speech…” in Cincinnati I believe about three weeks ago that Saddam Hussein uses murder as a tool of terror.

The president has said repeatedly in addition to the other reasons for instituting regime change in Baghdad, the weapons of mass destruction, he has talked about terror inflicted on his own people. So Saddam Hussein’s response to this is say, “okay, you call me a terrorizing murdering tyrant. I’ll prove you otherwise, I’ll open up my prisons.” It was a propaganda gesture, but it got out of hand. The crowd that gathered outside the gates built up to several thousands probably by… within two hours 10,000 or 15,000. By mid afternoon, it was probably 50,000 or more. And they broke down the prison gates before the actual release had begun.

They then stormed the cell blocks within the prison, and the most remarkable scenes developed. In my view what happened that day, we’re talking about Sunday two weeks ago, was that the people of Iraq who have been subjected to considerable oppression became sovereign at the moment that those gates and perceived themselves to be. They stormed the prison blocks and the photographs that you’ll be seeing occurred at the anonymously-named division six of the prison, not oddly the place that we knew to have been the principal holding cell for the political prisoners, which is called the special judgment division. We’re not sure to this day why the principal mob scene developed at division six. It’s at the southern end of the prison about a mile from the prison gates, and as dusk fell, a situation developed in which the prisoners inside the prison began to panic attempting to get out.

They reached a cinderblock wall with thousands of family — relatives outside. The relatives picked up large pieces of steel tubing from a construction site where they were about to build even more cell blocks, 15 or 20 huge cell blocks– cell block is probably the wrong term, we’re talking about prisons within a prison– began to break the cinder block wall down. At that point, an extremely frantic situation developed where you had, on the one hand, prisoners climbing out through part of broken wall and being assisted by some of the guards, and at another breach in the prison wall other guards with other links of steel tubing trying to beat prisoners back — a complete panic.

In the panic, quite a number of people were trampled to death. Our judgment was that they were probably suffocated and trampled. There was no evidence that we could be sure of, although there was some evidence of the guards beating some of the people attempting to breach their way through this wall, there’s no clear evidence any of them had been beaten to death.

The interesting question that remained from all of this– and Tyler’s picture which I think are quite extraordinary, and there’s one in particular which shows the terrors in eyes of the prisoners yet within the cell block as they attempted to get out– why were they so frightened? There were accounts… and of course none of this is verifiable. You have to imagine the scene was of absolute turmoil. 50,000 to 100,000 people in a mob storming every which way within the prison cell; every prisoner who got through the wall and out of other cell blocks racing for the gates, mostly abandoning all their possessions; some with bedding on their backs.

Hundreds, possibly thousands, of these relatives in a state of the absolute panic because they couldn’t find the people they had come to look for, and didn’t find them for reasons that we can easily assume. And there were stories that even as these prisoners began to breach the wall, killing of some kind or other was going on inside division six. We were not ever able to determine what had happened, whether this was just panic, hysteria. But the tragedy was, of course, and the photographs showed this, among the people who died, the prisoners who died, many of them had waited twenty or thirty years to get out of those cell blocks, and they reached literally within feet of freedom. If they got through the wall, they had a mile to run across the prison compound to freedom. And they died within feet of reaching freedom.

TERENCE SMITH: Altogether just an extraordinary circumstance. Thank you for describing it, John Burns. Thank you very much.

JOHN BURNS: It’s my pleasure.