John Burns: Back in Baghdad
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JIM LEHRER: Now, a conversation with New York Times correspondent John Burns. He returned to Baghdad recently after a six month absence. He spoke with us frequently from Iraq during the war, and in the run up to it, I talked with him again from Baghdad earlier this evening. John Burns, welcome.
JOHN BURNS: It’s nice to be with you.
JIM LEHRER: First, some items from the news of the day. This latest audio tape supposedly from Saddam Hussein, the CIA said today that it was inconclusive that the voice on the tape was actually Saddam Hussein’s. But that aside, how does his being alive still appear to affect things on the ground there?
JOHN BURNS: I think it’s, as the United States forces here said last week, it’s critical. There’s absolutely no doubt that the fact that he’s still alive, and presumptively involved in some way in this mounting tempo of attacks on American forces, is having quite an inhibiting effect on Iraqis.
People who only a few weeks ago I understand were willing to speak out to people like myself, quite decisively, against Saddam are now beginning to think it wiser to hold their vilification. It may seem impossible to us that anybody that Saddam could come back, but Iraqis live for 25 years under this guy and they are far from convinced.
JIM LEHRER: What about this Operation Hammer that coalition troops are involved in now what effect is it having on the attitude of the Iraqi people toward us and toward the Iraqis who may be in cahoots with Saddam or whatever?
JOHN BURNS: I think it’s too early to say. It’s only a week old now. There’s been enormous firepower deployed, visible firepower. I think the visible is very important. The helicopters over Baghdad, they buzz like night flies through the night, through the day as well.
As you know, heavy weapons are being used that haven’t been used since the war itself, including satellite-guided missiles. I think there’s some apprehension amongst Iraqis who wish the United States well, that this could rebound in terms of a negative reaction amongst the Iraqi population.
But it’s really too early to tell. I think that if the American forces were able to get the better of these attacks, which after all are killing as many Iraqis as they are Americans, and possibly more, if the Americans were able to get the upper hand, then I think you might see Iraqi opinion beginning to swing.
JIM LEHRER: Are the operations in fact bearing fruit?
JOHN BURNS: Oh, I think they are. We had a news conference tonight with the United States military command here, who gave some impressive figures on the recent arrests and on the operations where they’ve netted had quite a lot of weapons, principally in the Sunni Triangle which will now be familiar to Americans, the area after few hundred square miles north and west of Baghdad between Baghdad, Fallujah, Ramadi to the west and Tikrit to the north, this is the area where the Sunni people who are Saddam’s principal supporters are mostly concentrated — about 15 percent of the territory of Iraq. Iron Hammer has hit really hard in some of these places — in Baghdad as well — sweeps of entire neighborhoods which have been sealed off, the use of helicopter firepower against suspected targets.
I think it’s been effective. But of course the question is, how effective is it if they don’t get Saddam and his top lieutenants? My guess is that so long as Saddam and his top lieutenants are at liberty, or at least some of them, and we heard tonight that the U.S. military command believes that Saddam’s number two, Ibrahim al-Douri, they believe is directly involved in these attacks.
If they were able to get these men, then I think would it make a real difference. But as long as they don’t, I think that you’d have to assume that they would have perhaps not inexhaustible, but very deep well of people they could draw on — people like myself who were here during the war, and expected Saddam to fight for Baghdad and then found that he really didn’t fight, now know where all those fighters that we saw went.
All those Fedayeen who were gathered on street corners with their pickup trucks and machine guns in the 21 days of the war who suddenly disappeared as American troops arrived at Baghdad airport, these people, and there were thousands of them, are now either actually fighting or potential recruits for this resistance.
JIM LEHRER: How is the decision by the Bush administration to accelerate the turnover of power to the Iraqis being received over there?
JOHN BURNS: Well, from what I heard from Iraqis in the last 48 hours, there’s a very positive response to that. There’s no doubt that Iraq with its long history of foreign occupation and colonial rule feels very uncomfortable with American rule here, much as most people are profoundly grateful to the United States for removing Saddam.
That rule, as you know, in the last few months, has not been entirely successful in restoring to Iraqis many of the things they had hoped for, their electricity, their water, the end to the crime wave on the streets and so forth. So there’s been a great swing of opinion saying “why don’t we rule ourselves?”
I believe the president with his announcement over the weekend has gone some way to meeting that demand, but there is of course price. And the price may well be democracy. That is to say, if power is handed to a transitional government here, sovereignty, without a permanent constitution which had previously been the primary goal– get a permanent constitution agreed among the Iraqi leaders, supported by a referendum and then go to elections– if you don’t have that permanent constitution in place, you hand over power to an unelected group of people, many whom are not popular, almost all of whom are engaged in an intense rivalry with each other, then it seems to me that down the road we may find that the American hopes to implant a democracy of a kind we would recognize here may begin to evaporate.
JIM LEHRER: In a more general way, you were gone for six months, now you have returned. Adding up all the things that you have just been talking about and other things as well, you have come away, you’re not leaving now, but, I mean, do you stand there tonight with a feeling of hope or despair? How would you describe your general impression of what you’ve seen and heard?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I’d have to say that anybody who stood in the square behind me here just in front of the blue-domed mosque that can you see and watched that statue of Saddam being pulled down with the assistance of an American tank on April 9th has to be profoundly dispirited and disappointed by what you find when you come back here.
To find that in some respects the hunters have become the hunted, that American forces who did liberate this country, I think the word is in common parlance here, there’s no doubt that the Iraqis were in their overwhelming majority absolutely rejoicing over the overthrow of Saddam, to find that the mood has swung so sharply, to find that the United States armed forces are under such heavy attack and taking such heavy casualties, relatively speaking.
I understand, something like 80 in the past six weeks, 80 dead, compared with a similar number in the five months prior to that after Baghdad fell, this is all pretty dispiriting. It’s also dispiriting to find that Iraqi opinion is so shaky on all of this. Their bottom line is they do not want American forces to leave, because they understand or they say that they believe that would lead to civil war and absolute chaos.
But at the same time there are not a lot of Iraqis prepared to come forward and say outright, outside the governing council, the American-appointed interim authority here, to say that they stand behind the United States armed forces in their attempts to eliminate this campaign that can only be described as terror.
All of this is dispiriting. But I have to say that I think the American commanders here are correct in saying that they don’t believe that more than a small minority of Iraqis would like to go back to Saddam. And that the hope for something that is a representative government, not necessarily a democratic government as we understand it, but a representative government which can tie the Sunnis and the Shias, the Kurds and Arabs, the North, the Center and the South together, that hope is still very much alive.
And I would guess, to sum it up, that it’s going to take stout hearts on the part of the people of the United States, and the government of the United States, to see this through. The commanders are saying that the casualties are likely to go up before they come down — that it’s likely to be a protracted campaign. So I think a lot of pain is going to have to be taken before the situation gets better.
JIM LEHRER: Did you find it to be scarier and more dangerous than you expected it to be?
JOHN BURNS: Well, of course anybody, I think one of the striking things about the situation here is that I would think it’s fair to say that the people of the United States, the people of the world who have access to television and satellite television know more about this country and this war than any war-torn country ever.
I found when I was home in England, my native country this summer, that when I spoke about Iraq, and in the United States more recently, that I was talking to the best informed audiences I’ve ever talked to. Sometimes we’ve been able to come home from wars and make the safe assumption that we who have been there know, however little we know, that we know more than the people we’re talking to.
We’re talking and writing now for an extremely well-informed audience. I was part of that audience in the months that I was away so I was aware that it was dangerous. But to actually encounter it is, I must confess, a pretty daunting thing. I think my profession is going to have to grit its teeth as well.
A lot of journalists have died here, I think the sort of risks that have to be taken to cover this war are going to increase and there’s not a whole lot that you can do about it. You cover the war or you don’t cover the war. If you cover the war, then you get involved in situations of considerable risk.
Although I’ve missed it for the last seven months, to come back here and see my colleagues, and I don’t mean just my colleagues at the New York Times, but hundreds of western journalists here who are, if you will, braving these hazards, I find it to be for our profession a very proud moment.
JIM LEHRER: Okay. John Burns, thank you. Good to talk to you again and we’ll do it again soon.
JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Jim, it’s a pleasure.