Skip to main content

John Burns

He the New York Times Foreign Affairs Correspondent. He's just returned from three weeks in Iraq. He's reported from North Africa, the Middle East and Central Asia.


Other segments from the episode on January 6, 2002

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, November 6, 2002: Interview with John Burns; Commentary on the rock group Rolling Stones.


DATE November 6, 2002 ACCOUNT NUMBER N/A
TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A

Interview: John Burns discusses the time he spent in Afghanistan
and his interview with terrorist Abul Abbas

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

My guest, New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns, reported from Iraq
during the last three weeks of October. He was there for the election and
witnessed the release of political prisoners and criminals after Saddam
Hussein declared an amnesty. Since September 11th, Burns has been reporting
mostly from Afghanistan and Pakistan, but he started reporting from the region
long before 9/11. He won a Pulitzer Prize for his coverage of the Taliban's
takeover of Afghanistan in 1997. He won his first Pulitzer in 1993 for his
reporting from Bosnia. I spoke to Burns from the BBC in London yesterday.
Before we talked about his impressions of Iraq, I asked about his meeting in
Baghdad with the terrorist Abul Abbas. Burns' report on his interview with
Abbas is about to be published in The Times. I asked Burns to describe who
Abul Abbas is and how Burns got the interview.

Mr. JOHN BURNS (New York Times Foreign Correspondent): In the summer of 1985,
his splinter group of the Palestine Liberation Organization hijacked the
Achille Lauro cruise ship in the Mediterranean with an intent, so they say
now, to enter the Israeli port of Ashdod and attack naval installations, but
the whole thing went awry when they shot and killed a 69-year-old American
businessman from New York, Leon Klinghoffer, and then pushed him in his
wheelchair into the sea. It was at the time--and I would say for a very long
time, probably up until September the 11th--the sort of standard of
remorseless brutality in terrorism.

Abul Abbas was not on the ship. He was the general secretary of the Palestine
Liberation Front. He was involved in negotiations in Egypt that freed the
ship and ended any further killing. The hijackers and Abul Abbas then boarded
an aircraft to fly to Tunis, where Yasser Arafat's headquarters then was. The
aircraft was forced down by American fighters dispatched by President Reagan
and forced to land in Sicily. The Italians released Abul Abbas, saying they
had no direct evidence against him, and he left Italy and began a long nomadic
tour, if you will, of the Middle East, which continues until this day. The
Italians later reinstituted proceedings against him and, in fact, convicted
him in the Klinghoffer killing.

GROSS: So you caught up with Abul Abbas in Baghdad. How did you get an
interview with him?

Mr. BURNS: Chance, really. I saw him in the lobby of the Al Rashid Hotel,
which is the principal hotel in Baghdad. I spoke to him, and I was surprised.
I would have thought, expected that he would flee. He didn't. I later
discovered that he'd, in fact, had a conversation with a correspondent from
Newsweek, which published a brief summary of what he had to say a week or two
ago. He didn't give me his telephone number, but I went to the Palestine
Liberation Organization's embassy, so-called, in Baghdad and spoke to them,
judging that it was likely that they would have his phone number, which they
did, and I had telephoned, and after a little bit of evasiveness, they invited
me to go to what, in effect, is their headquarters now in a suburb of Baghdad.

GROSS: What were you able to learn about any connection that Palestinian
groups might have with Iraq or with al-Qaeda?

Mr. BURNS: Well, Mr. Abbas--and really, this was the heart of the interview,
other than his reiteration of his regret over the killing of Mr. Klinghoffer
and his insistence that he, not being on the ship, was not involved and had
never intended that that should happen. The core of my discussion with him
really was his attitude towards the events of September the 11th. And he was
contemptuous of Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda for what they did in attacking
the World Trade Center; didn't mention the Pentagon, because I think under the
kind of rubric that he now uses in this matter, he would see that differently.

But what he had to say about the World Trade Center was that what--he rejects
the use of the word `terrorism' when applied to himself, he regards that as a
terrorist action. He regards al-Qaeda as a terrorist group, and the
distinction he makes--it's a very fine one--is that the Palestine Liberation
Organization and its splinter groups were fighting what he describes as a
historic battle for the liberation of Palestine or of the occupied lands. It
is a specific objective. It's a secular objective. And whilst the enemies in
this struggle are America and Israel, they have not declared war on Americans
and Israelis or Americans and Jews in the way that Mr. bin Laden has. He
described the attack on the World Trade Center--he talked of watching it on
television, as so many of us did, and said that he found that there was no
political purpose in this. He described it as mysterious, as if he would wish
to find some explanation other than the one that bin Laden and al-Qaeda have
offered. But in any event, his conclusion was and his words were, `That is

GROSS: And why is Baghdad a safe place for him to be living now?

Mr. BURNS: Well, because, as you know, Baghdad has been for quite a long time
a sort of--Iraq has been a sort of pariah state. President Bush has said that
Saddam Hussein has provided sanctuary to al-Qaeda fugitives, al-Qaeda
terrorists. And Saddam Hussein, of course, has his own reasons related to the
Palestine, the struggle over there between Israel and Palestine. He's
appointed himself as, as you know, the sort of Saladin of the modern age; that
is to say the man who will ultimately be the liberator of Palestine. He's
established his so-called al-Quds army--al-Quds, an Arabic word meaning
Jerusalem--in which he's enrolled something over a million Iraqis. It's sort
of a fictitious army, as far as I can judge it. But that's the posture that
Saddam Hussein has taken over the struggle over the occupied territories. As
you know, it has quite an appeal across the Arab-Muslim world. And as part of
that, he's given sanctuary to Abul Abbas and, for all I know, other people
like him.

It's so difficult to get into Iraq and to get out of Iraq, for that matter,
that's it's probably the safest place for Abul Abbas to be now, but I don't
know that there are any other sanctuaries left. As a matter of fact, my guess
is the reason that he spoke to me was that there is no other obvious sanctuary
after Iraq. He professed not to be concerned about that, saying that he has
already lost so much in his struggle personally and that America has already
done so much damage to his cause. But it was pretty obvious from people
around him--and there are apparently about 30 people with this group--that
they are not indifferent to this prospect. In my presence, they were
discussing, you know, `Where would we go if American armed forces came to
Baghdad?' and I doubt that they have any answer to that.

GROSS: Do you think that Abul Abbas' rejection of al-Qaeda's terrorism in
attacking the World Trade Center is indicative of any larger rejection of it?
I mean, do you think he's just speaking for himself, or do you think he
represents any larger group right now?

Mr. BURNS: Well, this, of course, is a conundrum. Osama bin Laden was a sort
of Johnny-come-lately to the Palestinian cause. He only really started
speaking out about it with any vehemence in the last year or so before
September the 11th, and it's a point that Abul Abbas and, indeed, others in
the more radical wing of the Palestinian struggle have made: that they've not
found Osama bin Laden and al-Qaeda convincing on this point, not least
because, they will tell you, they've done nothing for the cause. The targets
they have chosen are not the targets the Palestinians would have chosen.

I think there also is a discomfort. I don't think that people, even people
who are quite radical in the Palestinian movement, would regard what happened
on September the 11th as helpful to their cause. And all the evidence, of
course, available to anybody who looks at it objectively is that it hasn't
been helpful to their cause; quite the contrary. So I think it's a
distinction that you might find being made by quite a few people. As to the
moral distinction that Abul Abbas and others make between events like the
killing of Mr. Klinghoffer and the killing of innocents in the twin towers,
that's counting angels on the head of a pin. I don't think that many
Americans or many Westerners would find that very convincing, since in both
cases, it involved innocent death. But it's nonetheless a distinction that
you hear quite commonly across the Middle East.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns. We'll
talk more after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: John Burns is my guest. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York
Times, and he's spent a lot of time in Afghanistan and that region lately. He
just returned to London from three weeks in Iraq.

John Burns, would you explain how you were let into Iraq and then why you had
to leave Iraq?

Mr. BURNS: Well, as you know, visas for American correspondents to Iraq are
much sought after, but the floodgates were opened in October, we were told in
Baghdad at a fairly senior level, by Saddam Hussein himself, who decided that
the blacklist, which they refer to by that word, the blacklist should be
suspended for the purpose of the presidential referendum, the one-candidate
presidential referendum that was held on October the 15th. It's quite
revealing, this, because you might think it odd that anybody as hard-headed as
Saddam Hussein could actually believe that holding a referendum in which
there's only one candidate, in which 11.4 million people vote; that's 100
percent of the eligible voters and 100 percent of them vote for Saddam
Hussein, by the Iraqi claim, you might think that that would be--even they
would understand that in the world from which we come, that would be regarded
as incredible, simply not believable.

But the available evidence is that Saddam Hussein actually believes that an
event of that kind will influence the world outside Iraq, and therefore, he
was prepared to suspend the blacklist, and they invited several hundred
reporters in. We were given 10-day visas, which were then extended, in my
case twice, until the three-week point, and then we were all told to leave.
And my guess is that we might have been able to stay longer, but for the
protests that occurred in the streets of Baghdad after Saddam Hussein
astonishingly amnestied virtually everybody in Iraq out of the prisons.
Probably 200,000 or more people were simply emptied out of the prisons. And
in the immediate aftermath of this, people took to the streets to demonstrate
because since quite a number of people--certainly thousands, maybe tens of
thousands--who have been arrested by the Iraqi secret police never got to
prison or, if they did get to prison, disappeared, the protests were made by
widows and others looking for those who did not come out of the prisons.

At the time, it was clearly a huge embarrassment to the government, and CNN was
told to withdraw all their non-Iraqi staff, which would, of course, have
severely handicapped their operations there. And then the most extraordinary
thing happened. Whilst this crisis for all the media was under way, all of a
sudden, Saddam Hussein's oldest son, Uday Saddam Hussein, who's been no friend
of the independent media before, denounced the Information Ministry through
the medium of a newspaper he controls in Baghdad, Babil, saying that they had
completely mishandled the coverage of the protests, and it was time--and this
was the word they used--to understand that much has changed since the 1970s,
which was the decade when his father rose to power, and that it's time for
Iraq to adjust to the so-called fact-searching media of the 21st century.
Although they didn't suspend the orders that we should all leave on the expiry
of our visas, it caused an extraordinary and immediate change in the attitude
within the Ministry of Information, who all of a sudden became quite welcoming
and told us if we went away, that we could come back when the weapons
inspectors arrive in Baghdad, which, of course, everybody expects to happen
within a matter of weeks.

GROSS: I guess what confused me most--there were many confusing things--but I
think what confused me most about the amnesty was that Saddam Hussein not only
released political prisoners, he released murderers and other criminals, and
so you can't just see it as, well, he's backing down from a certain degree of
totalitarianism and opening the door to a little more dissent, because he's
also opening the door for murderers. And you wonder what's the point of
letting the murderers out?

Mr. BURNS: Well, you can be sure that many Iraqis wondered the same question.
They were not at all happy any more than Americans would be if every murderer,
rapist and thief were suddenly released onto the streets. And among the
dissident thoughts, which in a rush reached us in the aftermath of what
happened in Abul Hraib(ph), was precisely that: What do they think they're
doing exposing us to this risk? And my guess is that there were both a
domestic and an international dimension to this. The international dimension
was to meet President Bush's insistent descriptions of Saddam Hussein and his
regime, you know, as a murdering tyrant. So I think on the international
dimension, the purpose was to try and persuade the world that this is not true
or, at least if it was true, it's not true anymore.

Domestically, I think the key was in a speech that Saddam Hussein gave
after--for his inauguration for his new seven-year term, to which he was
elected by this curious referendum on the 15th of October, where, in a long
and very rambling speech, there was a passage in which he used an image
apparently drawn from the Koran in which he said--described himself as holding
the bucket at the well and said that he was ready to dispense clear, pure
water to those who needed it. It was a passage about forgiveness, so he
seemed intent on persuading his own people that he was capable of change and
would govern in a different way in the future. That, to me, is the more
interesting dimension of all this, the sense that he needs at this time to
appeal to Iraqis whom you might feel were lost to him.

GROSS: Can you tell us where you stood when the prison you were watching was
emptied and how you chose your vantage point to observe what was happening.

Mr. BURNS: Well, we were summoned at short notice to the Information Ministry
on a Sunday morning and then driven at 120 miles an hour west of Baghdad. As
soon as we began to exit the city to the west, it was clear where we were
going. Anybody who knows anything at all about Iraq under Saddam Hussein
knows what Abul Hraib is. We arrived at the gates of the prison and at this
point we'd not been told what it was all about, but at noon a broadcast from
the state radio told us that the president was amnestying all prisoners in
Iraq, with the exception of, as I understand it, American spies and murderers
who'd made no quittance with the victims' families and so forth.

But, in fact, the restricted terms of the amnesty came to mean nothing very
quickly because an enormous crowd built up at the gates; initially a sort of
rent-a-crowd of people who were hoisting Saddam Hussein's portraits and
shouting his name. But the crowd quickly became unmanageable and, in fact,
broke through the gates, the outer gates of a prison that is completely vast;
I would say at least a mile square in every direction, and maybe two miles
square. In fact, it's prisons within a prison. The crowd burst through and
through the next hours into the night built up the mob to at least 50, maybe
100,000 people. And any intent to regulate who got out of that prison was
lost in the chaos.

We were swept into the gates with the mob. I hesitate to call it a mob
because we're talking about people who, in many cases of course, were just
desperate to find long-lost husbands, fathers, sons. And they then ranged
prison to prison or cell block to cell block, if you will. The prisoners who
got out raced, without exception, to the gates; never fearing, of course, you
know, that something equally extraordinary might happen and that they might
reverse the amnesty. Some did not get out immediately and it wasn't exactly
clear why they were held. And in one cell block in particular, Division
6(ph), at the southern end of this compound, a panic developed towards dusk in
which prisoners surging toward a sort of cinder block wall, which was the last
barrier between them and freedom, pushed forward and were then driven back by
guards. And in the confusion and melee, people died.

Our judgment, photographer Mr. Tyler Hicks from The New York Times and myself,
was that they had died in the main from suffocation, trampled to death.
Although steel tubing had been used by some guards to beat others back, it
wasn't plain to us that anybody had actually suffered fatal injuries from
that, so I think it's fair to say that things simply got out of hand. And it
was sort of the storming of the Bastille, if you will, 223 years later.

GROSS: Although you think that Saddam Hussein probably opened the prisons in
the hopes of winning more support and love from his people, you think this
might have backfired.

Mr. BURNS: I think it did. I think, myself, the critical moment in all of
this and possibly the critical moment in the modern history of Iraq came not
when he announced the amnesty but two hours later when the gates were opened.
Until that moment, it was Iraq as usual in the sense that it was a controlled
event. And I think that regimes that have total control of their people find
it difficult to imagine what happens when they lose control. In my judgment,
when the gates broke open, something historic happened. The people of Iraq
became sovereign at that moment. There was no law and order within that
prison. There was complete chaos. There was still some cheering for Saddam
Hussein, but all of a sudden there was the most extraordinary scenes, if you
will, of liberty--people shouting for freedom and democracy, people, in some
cases, shouting the name of President Bush, prisoners, as they raced for the
exits. So I think that whatever calculations might have been made the
government of Iraq prior to 2:00 or 2:30 PM on that Sunday afternoon, they all
went awry after that.

And one thing that I think was strange that was not calculated was that,
naturally, anybody who heard that radio broadcast who had lost a relative--and
not--I've been mentioning fathers and brothers and sons because Abul Hraib is
a male-only prison, but there are women prisons that are the counterpart of
Abul Hraib. Anybody who had lost a relative was obviously going to rush to
the prison where they thought they might be. And the inevitable consequence
of that was going to be that the last hope that they might have disappeared
into the gulag and might emerge was lost within 48 hours; when those lost,
missing people did not turn up, it was pretty plain what had happened to them
and that they never would turn up. And that became a very difficult issue for
the Baghdad government to manage, as you may imagine.

GROSS: John Burns is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. We'll
talk more about his three weeks in Iraq in the second half of the show. I'm
Terry Gross and this is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross, back with John Burns, a foreign
correspondent for The New York Times. He just spent three weeks in Iraq,
where he covered the election and Saddam Hussein's amnesty which freed tens of
thousands of Iraqi political prisoners and criminals. Burns has mostly been
covering Afghanistan and Pakistan since September 11th. He won a Pulitzer
Prize for his coverage of the Taliban takeover of Afghanistan in 1997. When
we left off, we were talking about how Iraq was changed by the amnesty.

Did people start speaking to you in a different way about Saddam Hussein after
the release of the prisoners?

Mr. BURNS: They did. And I think it needs to be said, again, you have to
remember what Iraq is, what kind of a place it is. These were isolated
incidents, here and there and now and then. And, of course, all the while,
anybody who had a television camera put in front of him or anybody confronted
in a sort of formal setting by a reporter with a notebook and a government
minder present was going to say the same thing as they've always said, that we
love our president, that we will defend him and the government of Iraq to the
end, that the Americans, if they send their troops here, will face a bloodbath
and will be defeated, and so forth.

To my mind--and this has always been true--that is nothing near as significant
as what people say in those brief moments when they feel themselves free to
express their opinions. It can happen in a hotel elevator, it can happen in a
bookshop when somebody brushes up to you and the minder is not paying any
attention, it can happen on airport apron when there's a jet engine running
and nobody can overhear what is being said and whisper it into your ear. All
of these circumstances I'm familiar with. The difference was that there was a
sudden rush of such occasions after the prisoner amnesty, and it's quite
frightening. It's very frightening, I'm sure, for the people who do it, who
do it with a look of terror on their faces. It's also a little frightening
for people who hear this, because while I don't think that anybody's going to
knock a correspondent from The New York Times on the head, to be engaged in
listening to dissident opinions is a serious business there.

GROSS: What are some of the things that people told you that you don't think
they would have said before the opening of the prisons?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I'll tell you one of them, which probably expresses it as
well as anything else.

GROSS: Mm-hmm.

Mr. BURNS: It wasn't the most incendiary, but the slogan for the referendum
was `Naam, naam'--in Arabic, `Yes, yes, Saddam.' Somebody came up to me in a
bookshop not far from one of the principal detention centers of the regime, a
place that is extremely forbidding. And he said--and it was plain he had
rehearsed this since he knew he would only have a matter of seconds to say
what he wanted to say, because there were banners hanging from this building
that we could see saying, `Naam, naam, Saddam.' He said the banner that the
Iraqi people wish to hang from their homes is, `Naam, naam, Bush; Naam, naam
America'--`Yes, yes, Bush; Yes, yes, America.' And he went on to say that,
`There are 22 million people in this country, and every one of them has 100
stories to tell of suffering under this government.' He said other things.

Now people who do that, if they get caught, in the past--unless the entire
system changed on that Sunday afternoon with the prison amnesty--are, in
effect, throwing away their lives, and as they will tell you, those of their
families as well. That's why it's so frightening. You know the enormous risk
they're taking for themselves in saying these things.

As to the larger question of how widespread these feelings are, of course,
that's absolutely impossible to tell, but my guess is that events in the 1990s
have severely narrowed down the basis of support on which that government
stands, and that there are a lot of people who are hoping that the events now
in progresss will lead to their liberation.

GROSS: You know, I'm wondering now that the Western reporters have been told
to leave Iraq, I'm wondering if the Iraq police aren't rounding up people
again and putting them back into the prisons.

Mr. BURNS: There's simply no way of knowing. I mean--I remember the first
editor I worked for at The New York Times, when I joined The New York Times
back in the mid-1970s, said something to me one night when I was just learning
my way there. He said, `Remember to tell the readers not just what you know,
but what you don't know.' It was a tremendous liberation for me, because I
think at that time as a young reporter, I was always striving for a sort of,
like, the whole truth, which, of course, is not knowable. Well, if there's
any place in the world where it's important for people--Americans to know what
we do not know, it's Iraq. There's an enormous amount we don't know because
we are so controlled.

So, you know, a lot of these answers have to be speculative. We simply don't
know what the Hamarat(ph), the secret police, has been doing since that
amnesty. We do know that within 24 hours, we were barred from entering Abu
Ghraib. As a matter of fact, an Italian film crew that ventured out there 12
hours later had their film taken. Seemed to be an unlikely thing to do if Abu
Ghraib was henceforth simply to be, you know, a bunch of abandoned buildings.

Human Rights Watch, amongst others, have chronicled some specific institutions
that we know nothing about, well-known detention centers. They include the
national Olympic buildings, extraordinarily, in Baghdad, which apparently is
used as a detention center. We simply don't know. And there's really no way
to find out--any attempt to find out these things would be attended by quite
considerable risk.

GROSS: My guest is John Burns. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York
Times. He spent three weeks in Iraq and was told to leave, along with other
Western journalists, last week.

The Kurds have a lot of reason to hate Saddam Hussein. He gassed the Kurds in
1988, and he's practiced a form of ethnic cleansing, deporting Kurds from
Iraqi cities and moving them to the Kurdish region in northern Iraq. In fact,
you've described his policy as `nationality'--he's described his policy, I
think, as `national correction.' What does that mean?

Mr. BURNS: Well, I think in Balkan terms, it's what we call ethnic cleansing.
A fundamental demographic fact of Iraq in the 20th century was that the
richest oil fields lay in an area where there was a Kurdish majority, in north
central Iraq. We have to say, to be fair to the present government of Iraq,
that the Arabization of that area was not something that Saddam Hussein
introduced. As a matter of fact, as a citizen of the United Kingdom, I'm
ashamed to say that it was something that my father's generation in Iraq,
after the founding of Iraq as a sort of British protectorate in 1921, also
followed it. Why? For a lot of reasons, but one of them was, I think that
they found that the Arabs of Iraq were more reliable allies for a British
colonial enterprise. But this whole process has been intensified under Saddam
Hussein and become very painful.

And a lot of people--100,000 possibly 200,000--have fled out of the
predominantly Kurdish areas of north central Iraq into the protectorate, in
effect, that's been created by the no-fly zone in northern Iraq. And it's an
important component, of course, in what lies ahead now because there is, in
effect, if you want to talk in Afghan terms, a sort of Northern Alliance area
in northern Iraq. That's to say, an area--a considerable area, 10 to 12
percent of the territory of Iraq, which has airfields and other military
installations which is not under Saddam Hussein's control and is, in fact, in
the control of people who, as you said, are in the main very hostile to him.

GROSS: But even though the Kurds in the north are hostile to Saddam Hussein,
do you think that the United States can just assume that they'll support the
United States if the United States invades Iraq?

Mr. BURNS: No, I don't think you can. There are Kurdish leaders who will say
to you privately, `We won't have any choice.' Devil in the deep blue sea.
Because, of course, if an American invasion of Iraq were to fail, then the
Kurdish protectorate in the north would also almost inevitably collapse with
terrible consequences for anybody who's been in a position of authority there.
My guess is that in the main they're hoping that President Bush and his
military plan, if he does intend an invasion of Iraq, will give them a pass;
that he will do it mainly by air power from the north.

I don't know that it will be easy for the United States to use that territory
in northern Iraq for other reasons, which has to do with Turkey and Iran, both
of whom have extreme sensitivities, of course, about the Kurdish autonomy in
Iraq, seeing it as possibly a platform for the Kurds to resume their historic
push for a Kurdish state which would occupy a good deal of Iran, Turkey, Iraq
and Syria. So it's a very, very complicated issue.

We do know that people from the CIA, from the Pentagon and other American
government institutions have been in northern Iraq in recent months. And I
think one thing we can assume is that northern Iraq will not be excluded from
this enterprise, but just how it would be included at this point is impossible
to say.

GROSS: Well, another complicating factor is that there's an extremist Islamic
group known in English as Soldiers of God that's in that northern area that
would certainly oppose a US invasion.

Mr. BURNS: They would. It's a very striking thing. There's an area,
possibly not more than a hundred square miles, but still you can do a lot with
a hundred square miles, that immediately abuts the Iranian border in
northeastern Iraq. So we're talking about a part of Iraq which is immediately
to the north and east of the city of Halabjah, known to Americans as the place
that Saddam Hussein's air force dropped chemical weapons in March of 1988 with
catastrophic effects. As if the people of Halabjah have not suffered enough,
what they have now is an extremist Islamic group that controls the valleys and
mountains to the east leading to the Iranian border, and we do know that that
group has al-Qaeda links.

When I last looked at this, there were said to be about five or six hundred
people in that group, of whom possibly as many as a 150 were fugitives from
Taliban-ruled Afghanistan. That's to say, people who had crossed Iran and
entered into that sanctuary in northeastern Iraq within the past year or so.
What was a little bit odd about this was it was because you can actually go to
the periphery of this territory and look down into these valleys and actually
see these people. What's a little odd about this is that although they have
attacked into the Kurdish area, they've attempted to assassinate Kurdish
leaders, they've created absolute mayhem by attacking military bunkers
established by the Kurds around Halabjah; killing a dozen or more people at a

What's a bit strange about this was that the Bush administration said
virtually nothing about this, or it wasn't keen to talk about it until
relatively recently, and it's not clear to me why that was. After all, they
would fire missiles from Predator drones over Yemen to kill a single al-Qaeda
leader and his associates, and here was a known concentration of at least 100
or 150 of these people inside Iraq. I think what this tells us is the extreme
sensitivities of the region and how the Bush administration does not wish, for
one thing, to disturb the Turks or the Iranians by mounting military
operations inside Iraq, even inside the Kurdish-controlled section of Iraq,
until it's made the larger decisions about what to do about Iraq proper.
That, to my mind, is the only way to understand the fact that those people in
those valleys, those al-Qaeda-linked people, have so far been left alone.

GROSS: My guest is New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns. Our
interview was recorded yesterday from the BBC in London. Today's New York
Times reports that the Iraqi Kurdish leader said that Iran had promised
military help to oust the Islamic militants in northern Iraq. We'll hear more
from John Burns after a break. This is FRESH AIR.

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: John Burns is my guest. He's a foreign correspondent for The New York
Times, and he just spent three weeks in Iraq. He was asked to leave last
week, along with other Western journalists.

I just want to ask you a question about the position you're in when you're a
Western reporter in Iraq. One of your articles for The New York Times was
about a tour that you were given by, you know, Iraqi representatives--I forget
who it was--you know, who actually took you on this tour of an industrial
plant, a plant that the United States said was being used to rebuild Iraq's
nuclear weapons program. And the point of this tour for the Western press was
to show, `No, no, no, this plant is not being used for nuclear weapons.'
Well, how are you supposed to be able to tell the difference? I mean, it's
like what a sham. But yet, you're certainly going to go, right? I mean...

Mr. BURNS: It's absurd on its face and, of course that's the first thing.
And I don't exactly remember how I wrote about that.

GROSS: Oh, you made it pretty clear that you thought the whole thing, you

Mr. BURNS: Well, the whole thing was a farce and a sham...

GROSS: Yeah.

Mr. BURNS: ...and there was no way--we knew this, or at least those of us who
cared to think about it, knew that there was no way that that tour was going
to prove one thing or the other. In fact, the way in which the tour was
conducted made it impossible even to determine the one thing that might have
been really useful, which is that President Bush had released in accompany
with that speech in October photographs of this installations. It's called
Al Furat. It's about 25 miles southwest of Baghdad. And one thing we know
for sure it that Al Furat was, up until the mid-1990s, a place where the
Iraqis were attempting to develop a system for enriching uranium for the
purpose of building nuclear weapons. That's not in dispute. The question is:
What happened after the weapons inspectors left?

President Bush released photographs--the White House released photographs of
this installation with one particular building: a large hanger-sized
building, which apparently was the building that would once again be used for
this experimental enrichment process. But we weren't even allowed near that.
So, you know, the whole thing was absurd. If they set out to prove it wasn't
being used for that purpose, then the obvious thing to do would have been to
take us into that building. We never got to that building. And my guess is
that whatever was about to happen at Al Furat was no longer going to happen
after President Bush released those photographs.

We went from building to building and into offices where it looked like
equipment had been pushed in, in a hurry, and there were secretaries sitting
at computers who seemed to have not the first idea what the computers were
for. And they just sat there staring blankly at the desktops on their
computers and only actually started to do anything if a reporter approached
them and asked them what their purpose in being there was.

GROSS: Right.

Mr. BURNS: The equipment that had been wheeled into this place was absurd.
It was, for example, a Soviet-era pod to be hung beneath the wing of a
military aircraft, which was some sort of radar jamming device. Taking a look
at this thing, I would think that it was at least 20 or 25 years old and
hadn't been operational probably for most of that time. None of it made
sense, and nothing was proved one way or the other by taking us there.

GROSS: So your article about this tour was really very skeptical. Do you
think that the, you know, Iraqi government reads what you write for The New
York Times? Do they know what you're saying?

Mr. BURNS: You'd have to think that an organized government that has battened
down the hatches as tightly as that one has would watch very carefully what
Western reporters are saying and watch pretty carefully the Internet. But my
feeling is--I might be wrong about this--that in the present crisis, their
priorities have shifted somewhat, and that in strange ways we've become
somewhat less important and somewhat less relevant to them than before. This
all about survival, and my guess is that if you could ask Saddam Hussein or
Tariq Aziz or Izzat Ibrahim or any of the regime leaders about people like me,
I would be very low on their list of priorities. I'd be almost invisible.

GROSS: What are your hopes for returning to Iraq?

Mr. BURNS: Well, of course, I want to go back very badly. At any one point
in time for a foreign correspondent, there's going to be one place that
everybody wants to be more than any other, and right now that's Baghdad. A
year ago, it was Kabul. So to be excluded would be very disappointing. And I
should say that--I would say this, wouldn't I? But I happen to believe it's
true, and it's certainly something I said to Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime
minister who is the principal sort of interlocutor for the government. I
said, when I met him for an interview during this trip to Baghdad--I said, `To
be realistic, I cannot expect that you will much like much of what I or people
like me write. But I think that we're useful anyway because I think that you,
above all right now, need to keep open a dialogue with the United States. And
one thing you can be pretty sure of with The New York Times is that if you
have anything pertinent to say about what's at the heart of this crisis, it
would be in The New York Times tomorrow and it will be accurately reported.'
And he said to me, `Of course, we know that you people would write lies about
us.' And I said to him, `Well, let's do a deal here. If I report this
interview in a way that is in even one small way inaccurate, throw me out. If
I don't, then take me as true to my word.'

So I sent him a copy of my article that I'd written, and a few days later, I
saw him in the lobby of the Al Rashid hotel and he was very congenial. So I
think there is a recognition that we are useful in circumstances like this and
that cut off that, if you will, dialogue with the world would be very

GROSS: John Burns, good luck to you and thank you very much for talking with

Mr. BURNS: Thank you. It's been a pleasure.

GROSS: John Burns is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times. He
spoke to us from the BBC in London.

Coming up, it's the 40th anniversary of The Rolling Stones. Rock historian Ed
Ward focuses on their early years.

This is FRESH AIR.

* * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * * *

Profile: Early history and origin of The Rolling Stones

The Rolling Stones are celebrating their 40th year together. The
anniversary-related events include the re-release of The Stones' entire early
catalog on Abkco Records remixed and remastered. In the first of a two-part
series, rock historian Ed Ward talks about the band's very earliest days.

(Soundbite of music)

Unidentified Man: (Singing) Stoned.

ED WARD reporting:

Some time in London in the summer of 1962, above a long-vanished pub called
The White Bear, a young man fought a lonely battle. He was trying to start a
blues band in London. His name was Brian Jones, and he'd been encouraged by
the man who almost single-handedly brought blues to Britain, Alexis Korner, a
half-Italian, half-Austrian guitarist with the Chris Barber Band. During the
intermissions, Korner and his harmonica-playing pal Cyril Davies would play
songs they'd learned from old blues records, and this Jones kid would come up
from the suburbs in Cheltenham to hear them.

Eventually, the duo became a band, Blues Inc., and had a weekly gig in
suburban Ealing. Their drummer was probably the youngest member; a jazz fan
who worked at an ad agency, a job that bored him. His name was Charlie Watts.
People came from as far away as Scotland to see the gigs at The Ealing Club,
and eventually Brian wasn't hitchhiking from home anymore; he was sleeping
under the Korners' kitchen table. `We'd tell people, "Oh, don't mind him.
That's just Brian,"' Korner's wife Bobbi(ph) told me. He was calling himself
Elmo Lewis, and would sit in for a number on slide guitar.

(Soundbite of "Little Red Rooster")

Mr. MICK JAGGER: (Singing) I am the little red rooster, too lazy to crow for

(Soundbite of music)

Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) I am the little red rooster...

WARD: One night, a couple of school chums, Mike Jagger and Keith Richards,
who had bonded over their mutual enthusiasm for blues and Chuck Berry, came to
Ealing and were blown away by Elmo Lewis. After the show, they chatted with
him, and he mentioned that he was starting band, something Alexis Korner had
urged him to do. Jagger had been fooling around with blues himself, and he
gave Korner a tape. Before long, Blues Inc. had a new lead singer, now
calling himself Mick.

Meanwhile, Brian put an ad in the magazine Jazz News for his project, claiming
they had plenty of interesting work available and needed harmonica, sax,
piano, bass and drums. First to answer was Ian Stuart, a solidly built piano
player with fine boogie-woogie chops. Guitarist Dick Taylor showed up at The
White Bear, too, and in June, so did Mick and Keith, which meant Taylor
switched to bass. Drummer Mick Avory completed the band. In July, Blues Inc.
was offered a spot on a television program on the same night as they were to
play The Ealing Club, so Alexis asked Brian if his band could fill in. Oh,
and did they have a name? Yes: The Rollin' Stones. Before long, Brian, Mick
and Keith moved into a ratty flat near the Kings Road in Chelsea, staying up
late and playing Muddy Waters records.

(Soundbite of "I Just Want To Make Love To You")

Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) I don't want you to be no slave. I don't want you to
work all day. I don't work 'cause I'm sad and blue. I just want to make love
to you, baby, love to you, baby, love to you.

WARD: They had sporadic gigs throughout the fall, and in December 1962,
things came together. First, Charlie Watts quit Blues Inc. because he didn't
think he was good enough. Second, an older veteran of several rock 'n' roll
bands, Bill Perks, showed up at a rehearsal above The Weatherby Arms(ph)
around the corner from the boys' apartment. He was much better on bass than
Dick Taylor, who wanted to play guitar. They let him go, and he later founded
the Pretty Things. Charlie Watts, too, auditioned, and since they didn't have
a permanent drummer, a band was born.

By the spring of 1963, there was a club circuit in London for this music and a
couple of other bands playing it. Jazz fogies didn't like it, but kids did
and they showed up in droves. Naturally, this sort of thing attracted
attention. The Stones made a demo record and sent it to a couple of record
companies, but were turned down. Then a 19-year-old half-American kid with a
lot of guts saw them in late April and immediately offered to be their
manager. His name was Andrew Loog Oldham, and right away he made some
changes. First, Ian Stuart was to become road manager, not play on stage
because the band was too big. Second, Bill Perks' name change to Bill Wyman
was a good idea. Third, Keith Richards would drop the S from his name.
Fourth, the G went back on the end of Rolling Stones. Right. And now into
the studio.

(Soundbite of "Come On")

THE ROLLING STONES: (Singing) Everything is wrong 'cause me and my baby
parted. All day long I walked because I couldn't get my car started. Laid
off from my job and I can't afford to check it. I wish somebody'd come along
and run into it and wreck it. Come on, since me and my baby parted. Come on,
I can't get started. Come on, I can't afford to check it. I wish somebody'd
come along and run into it and wreck it. Everything is wrong...

WARD: It was too fast, the recording quality was awful, but this Chuck Berry
song got to number 25 on the British charts, and The Rolling Stones were on
their way.

GROSS: Ed Ward lives in Berlin. He'd like to dedicate this piece to the
memory of Alexis Korner. Later in the week, Ed reviews The Stones'
re-released albums.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

(Soundbite of "Not Fade Away")

Mr. JAGGER: (Singing) I want to tell you how it's gonna be. And you're gonna
give your love to me. I'm gonna love you night and day, 'cause love is love
and not fade away. Well, love is love and not fade away. And my love's
bigger than a Cadillac. I try to show it, but you drive me back. Your love
for me has got to be real before you to know just how I feel. Love for real
and not fade away. Well, love for real and not fade away. Yeah!

(Soundbite of music)
Transcripts are created on a rush deadline, and accuracy and availability may vary. This text may not be in its final form and may be updated or revised in the future. Please be aware that the authoritative record of Fresh Air interviews and reviews are the audio recordings of each segment.

You May Also like

Did you know you can create a shareable playlist?


Recently on Fresh Air Available to Play on NPR


Daughter of Warhol star looks back on a bohemian childhood in the Chelsea Hotel

Alexandra Auder's mother, Viva, was one of Andy Warhol's muses. Growing up in Warhol's orbit meant Auder's childhood was an unusual one. For several years, Viva, Auder and Auder's younger half-sister, Gaby Hoffmann, lived in the Chelsea Hotel in Manhattan. It was was famous for having been home to Leonard Cohen, Dylan Thomas, Virgil Thomson, and Bob Dylan, among others.


This fake 'Jury Duty' really put James Marsden's improv chops on trial

In the series Jury Duty, a solar contractor named Ronald Gladden has agreed to participate in what he believes is a documentary about the experience of being a juror--but what Ronald doesn't know is that the whole thing is fake.

There are more than 22,000 Fresh Air segments.

Let us help you find exactly what you want to hear.
Just play me something
Your Queue

Would you like to make a playlist based on your queue?

Generate & Share View/Edit Your Queue