TOPICS > Nation

John Burns Reports on the Ongoing Iraqi Insurgency

September 22, 2004 at 12:00 AM EDT


GWEN IFILL: John Burns, welcome back. As I’m sure you have been following the state of the political debate in the United States this week has all been to the situation in Iraq. Today we saw suicide bombings in Baghdad in the fight against Samara. What is latest on the violence on the ground?

JOHN BURNS: It doesn’t get any better. Of course the most distressing news of the week from the point of view of any westerner here was the beheading of the two American hostages and continuing weight wait to find out whether the third hostage, the British hostage, is going to suffer the same fate. Once again today, as you know, we had a suicide car bombing, killing this time 11 people, most of them potential recruits for the Iraqi National Guard. It’s plain that the people who are doing this and suspicion fall primarily on Musab al-Zarqawi, the Jordanian-born terrorist leader who it is thought may be the person who is actually carried out the beheadings, personally carried out the beheadings.

These people know what they’re doing. They are trying to terrorize the people who have come here, as is the case with Jack Armstrong and Jack Hensley and Kenneth Bigley, the British hostage, who came here to try and assist in the reconstruction of Iraq on the one hand and by the suicide bombings of recruits to the Iraqi police force and the Iraqi National Guard they’re clearly trying to deter the buildup of Iraq’s own security forces which everybody, including the United States command here, regards as absolutely essential to the entire American enterprise in Iraq.

GWEN IFILL: Apparently these kidnappers, John, were asking for the release of certain Muslim women who are being held by American forces. And after the first and then the second beheading, there was some discussion that one of these women at least might be released. What can you tell us about that?

JOHN BURNS: What we learned today after the second body was recovered in western Baghdad, was that these two women, both of them scientists, both of them high ranking figures in Saddam Hussein’s germ warfare program, both of them were at a stage… in one case, quite an advanced stage… of a possible pre-release review. To make it simple: There are these two, one of them popularly known as Dr. Germ, that’s Dr. Taha Rahab and the other one, known and I ask the feminists in our audience to forgive this-but she was popularly known in the tabloids in the United States and the United Kingdom as Mrs. Anthrax – that’s Dr. Huda Ammash – are both being held at Camp Cropper – that’s the maximum security prison on the American military headquarters compound near Baghdad Airport, a place where Saddam Hussein and the 40 of the 55 people who were on the pack of cards of most wanted fugitives are also held.

Now it turns out we learned today there was a review process, that she was well along in that process; that is to say her American captors had already reviewed her case and approved her release and passed it on to the Iraqis who were themselves reviewing it. Now we’ve heard tonight that Dr. Allawi, the Iraqi prime minister in New York has said that there will be no release of Dr. Rahad without his personal approval. The other scientist involved, Dr. Huda Ammash, who is a much more senior figure and was pictured with Saddam Hussein with the last in here of his senior officials in his redoubt after the war began last year, she was the only woman in the last grouping of leaders clustered around him. Her case is slightly different. Again, the decision will essentially be made in the first place by the American commander — in her case, by the Pentagon because she was on the pack of cards. The Iraqi government had passed to the Americans so we’re told tonight, a request that her case be reviewed on compassionate grounds. She recently became a grandmother. She hasn’t been very well. That review has not begun and certainly is nowhere near completion and will eventually be referred if approved back to the Iraqis and I suppose eventually to Dr. Allawi.

But what we’re to make short of this is that only after the Americans were killed did we learn that the demand made for the Americans’ release, namely that all women held captive by American forces be released, turns out there are only two; these are the two – that there was and is an active process for their release. We didn’t learn that and we have to suppose neither did Abu Musab al-Zarqawi, the terrorist leader who is putatively the leader of these beheadings. Neither did he know that until after they were killed.

GWEN IFILL: Has there been any reaction among ordinary Iraqis about the idea whether these civilian targets are appropriate targets at this time?

JOHN BURNS: I think the overwhelming majority of Iraqis believe that they were not and I can tell you of my own experience of moving around the city in the last few days, in the course of all of this, Iraqis are absolutely appalled. I can tell you what happened in the office of the New York Times when the video of the beheading of one of these hostages arrived from an Islamic militant Web site in the middle of our night. One of our toughest employees excused himself from watching the video and went away to throw up.

I think that’s pretty typical of the reaction of Iraqis as it would be of Americans; there is a very widespread disgust of this and one can only think that Iraqis being as rational as we are, will begin to turn against this kind of thing and possibly begin to stand up more than they have in the past against the wider insurgency and force solutions which are on offer, for Iraq to return to some kind of stability through common sense and with the help of the United States and its armed forces here because it’s widely conceded again, just as it’s widely felt amongst Iraqis, that these killings are an outrage and completely disgusting. So they will also tell you and this is very widespread but whilst they would like the Iraqi – the United States forces to withdraw eventually, they certainly do not wish them to go now because it is widely acknowledged that that would lead quickly to a civil war.

GWEN IFILL: John Burns, thank you once again for joining us.

JOHN BURNS: It’s a pleasure.