MARGARET WARNER: John Burns, welcome. There's been tremendous confusion about what happened in Fallujah last night. What can you tell us about how this entire episode unfolded?
JOHN BURNS: Well, I think the reporters, including one of ours, who were at the site would say that it's too early to tell. It's a complicated story. You have the account given by the U.S. forces there, and you have the conflicting accounts given by some of the people who were in the crowd.
The key question, of course, is, who fired first? Clearly there was a situation that the American troops felt was threatening. They opened fire. It's very unfortunate and not at all good for the broader American position here. But I think it needs to be said that while the war is in all essentials over, American troops in Iraq still face considerable dangers.
Central Command in Qatar tonight issued a statement which listed just in the 48 hours prior to this attack-- if it was an attack on the Fallujah School-- seven separate incidents in which U.S. forces were attacked, six of them... they were attacked with weapons, AK-47s, and one of them where a taxi driver attempted to kill a marine. This is not yet a safe place. People live very much on the edge here, and these incidents unfortunately are of course always likely to happen.
MARGARET WARNER: Is there still a dispute over the number of dead and wounded at Fallujah?
JOHN BURNS: Well, we were satisfied from visiting hospitals and taking accounts from the records of the hospitals and looking in morgues that fifteen were dead and approximately something in the region of sixty to seventy-five injured. I think that's pretty well certain. Of course, it might be higher than that. It's very difficult, always in these situations with the extreme passions that are aroused amongst people, to determine exactly what the truth is.
Ian Fisher of the New York Times, who spent the day at Fallujah, described to me the... how the school is pockmarked with rifle fire, indicating that it had been fired on. Of course, you'd have to be a forensic expert to determine when that shooting took place. Was it last night? Was it at the height of all of this, or was there some previous incident? Many, many buildings in Iraq have been hit by rifle fire. It's very, very complicated to tell.
MARGARET WARNER: What can you tell us about Fallujah and why were U.S. troops stationed there?
JOHN BURNS: Well, Fallujah I think is a complicated place. First of all, it's a Sunni Muslim town predominantly, and the significance of that, of course, is that you find much stronger support for Saddam Hussein in Sunni Muslim areas-- they're a minority in Iraq, as I'm sure your viewers know-- than you do in other towns where, in the main, Shiites are a majority. I think it was no coincidence that Fallujah was also a place where Saddam Hussein concentrated some of the more important weapons mass destruction facilities, including a place known in the weapons of mass destruction inspection reports by the United Nations as Fallujah ii, a major chemical weapons plant. Now, I don't wish to suggest that there's any kind of direct connection, only that you do expect, and we have seen, that in places where there is a significant Sunni Muslim population, there are much stronger pockets of support for Saddam Hussein.
We're in a very confusing time here in Iraq. The past is not yet dead. The future is not yet born. Iraqis, many of them who were delighted to see American troops arrive, have been deeply disappointed to the point almost of despair by many of the events that have happened since. They see very little signs of the reconstruction that was promised to them. And when they tell us, people like myself, in the streets of Baghdad and other cities, how desperate they are for their schools, their hospitals, their jobs to be revived, it doesn't do much good to say to them, "this is only two or three weeks since U.S. Troops arrived." How the... General Garner and his people, General McKiernan and his people, can accelerate this process is not exactly clear to me.
But one impression I have is that contrary to what seems to be the prevailing position in Washington, many Iraqis would like to see a stronger American hand here. They're used to strong government. And what they've seen since April 9 is virtually no government. There is an American land forces commander, General McKiernan, who issues a statement saying "we're in charge," but he's not visible. 99.9 percent of Iraqis... to tell you truth, 99.9 percent of all reporters, including American reporters, have never seen General McKiernan. My feeling is that Iraqis want a visible presence. They would welcome it if it was a presence in uniform who not only declared himself to be in charge, but really was in charge, was a presence to whom they could turn and to whom in the end they could hold accountable.
MARGARET WARNER: All right, John, thank you again very much.
JOHN BURNS: Thank you, Margaret.