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Journalist Jon Landay

Jon Landay is national security correspondent for the Knight Ridder newspapers. At the time of this conversation he was about 30 miles from the city of Kirkuk in Northern Iraq. But he's not one of the embedded reporters. Landay is traveling as an independent journalist, with a driver and translator.


Other segments from the episode on March 27, 2003

Fresh Air with Terry Gross, March 27, 2003: Interview with Jon Landay; Interview with John Burns.


 TIME 12:00 Noon-1:00 PM AUDIENCE N/A
 PROGRAM Fresh Air

Interview: Journalist Jonathan Landay discusses his reporting
in the Kurdish area of northern Iraq

This is FRESH AIR. I'm Terry Gross.

On today's show we're talking with two reporters in Iraq who are not embedded
with the US military. Jonathan Landay is the national security correspondent
for Knight Ridder newspapers. He's in northern Iraq where the Kurds have been
living under their own rule for about a decade, protected against Saddam
Hussein by the no-fly zone. Things have been relatively quiet where Landay
is, but that may be about to change. Last night more than 1,000 US
paratroopers dropped into northern Iraq, securing an air field and opening a
northern front. We called Landay earlier today on his satellite phone.

Tell us where you are and why you're there.

Mr. JONATHAN LANDAY (Knight Ridder Newspapers): OK. At the moment, I'm
about 20 miles west of the city of Sulaymaniyah, which is in the Kurd
rebel-held enclave in northern Iraq. I am on the side of the road speaking to
you over my satellite phone. And I'm on my way to a small town called
Chamchamal, which is about 400 to 500 yards from the Iraqi front lines that
are defending the city of Kirkuk. I'm here because Kirkuk has got to be one
of the primary or most important objectives of any US military campaign here
in Iraq, especially of any military campaign that is opened from the north,
from the rebel Kurdish-held area in northern Iraq. Kirkuk is a place that not
only sits atop one of the largest deposits of oil in Iraq and perhaps in the
entire Middle East, but it is also a place where there are ethnic disputes,
and it kind of epitomizes some of the more difficult issues that are going to
have to be grappled with by the United States and its coalition partners when
this military campaign is over and there is a US military occupation of Iraq.

GROSS: So you've been spending your nights right near where the Iraqi front
lines are, the front lines defending Kirkuk. Do you get to actually see the
Iraqi troops?

Mr. LANDAY: Absolutely. We can see them very plainly through--actually, if
you get up close enough, right up to the beginning of a 400-yard no-man's
land, you can see them quite distinctly on top of their bunkers. You can also
see them quite distinctly through binoculars. And we actually have witnessed
US air strikes on their bunkers along--that are defending the road that leads
from the city of Sulaymaniyah. It's a four-lane highway. It goes through
there lines and on to the city of Kirkuk.

GROSS: What kind of battle are you expecting there?

Mr. LANDAY: It's really hard to say at the moment because the United States
had wanted to open a northern front using 60-odd thousand American troops
backed by tanks and all of the implements of modern warfare, but they ran into
a problem. And that problem was the fact that the Turks--the Turkish
government was not agreeable, not amenable to allowing the use of their
military bases as launching pads, as staging pads for the opening of a US
military front in the north of Iraq, and therefore, that hasn't happened.

Now we do have American Special Forces present here in northern Iraq. There
was an air drop on Wednesday night--actually, early Thursday morning by a
little under 1,000 paratroopers of the 173rd Paratroop Regiment that flew in
from Italy and took control of an air field to the west of me in another part
of the Kurdish enclave controlled by one of the two Kurdish parties that
control the enclave. But beyond that, there are no major US military
formations here in the north. And no way do they have anywhere near the kind
of troops they need to be able to open an offensive on the Iraqi army
formations that are defending Kirkuk and then to the west, the city of Mosul,
which is also sitting atop major oil deposits.

GROSS: So in the meantime, you know, you're kind of waiting to see what's
going to happen in Kirkuk. What are you doing in the meantime? Where are
you looking for your stories?

Mr. LANDAY: Well, there's been quite a lot to report until very recently.
We have a situation brewing up on the northeastern border of the Kurdish
enclave and Iran, where there is a pocket of Kurdish Islamic fundamentalists
who are allegedly allied with Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network. Reportedly,
there are dozens of al-Qaeda members who escaped the US military operations in
Afghanistan and are being given refuge by the Kurdish Islamic group, which is
called Ansar al-Islam, or `the partisans of Islam.' That is why there are
quite a few numbers of US Special Forces here. There is a planned offensive
to go in there and take control of this enclave and crush Ansar and any
al-Qaeda members who are there. We think we are coming fairly close to this
offensive because an associated Islamic group that held territory on the right
flank of al-Ansar[sic] vacated its positions today. There are hundreds of
them, and their families have been leaving that area, and we believe that
there is an offensive in the offing. So there's been that to report.

There are very compelling internally displaced persons stories. People--Kurds
who went through the depravations against them by the Saddam regime, the
chemical attacks during what was known as the Al Faw campaign in 1988, when
thousands of Kurds were killed in chemical weapons attacks by Saddam.
Thousands were massacred. There are more than 180,000-odd who are unaccounted
for. And then again in 1991, you had another huge refugee outpouring from
here when former President Bush instigated and then abandoned a Kurdish
uprising following Saddam's defeat in the 1991 Gulf War. Those experiences
left really, really deep scars in the Kurd--in the collective Kurdish psyche.
So there's those kinds of stories to report as well.

GROSS: Jonathan, how have the Kurds been taking the news that Turkey is now
saying it won't send additional troops into northern Iraq? That's something
that the Kurds had been worried about. They don't want Turkish troops to
cross the line. Is there a lot of relief now that the Turks are saying they
won't send additional troops?

Mr. LANDAY: Absolutely. There's a great deal of relief among Kurdish
officials. Earlier in the day I spoke with a very senior official of the
Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, which is the Kurdish rebel party that controls
the part of northern Iraq that I'm in--expressed enormous relief that they
will not have to deal with a Turkish military incursion. And yet there still
is some lingering apprehension that the Turks may still come in. It's a very
complicated situation here. And this is, again, why I'm here to particularly
focus on the Kirkuk situation. The Turks are fearful or say they are fearful
that under the cover of this war the Kurds here in northern Iraq could revive
a drive for an independent Kurdish state, even though the senior Kurdish
leaders have repeatedly, repeatedly renounced any intention to seek an
independent state. Nevertheless, the Turks say they are concerned by this,
and in particular is a concern that if the Kurds take control of Kirkuk, they
will then have control of enormous, enormous financial resources in the form
of the oil that is beneath the territory around the city and that they could
use those resources to fund an rejuvenate a drive for independence. And the
Turks themselves have actually threatened to invade if the Kurds try to take
control of Kirkuk.

The problem here is that there are tens of thousands of Kurds and other
minorities, Turkmen, Syrian Christians, who over the years have been
ethnically cleansed in progressive--in successive waves of ethnic cleansing by
the Saddam regime, forced out of their homes around Kirkuk and other areas
nearby Kirkuk that sit atop oil deposits. And Arabs have been put in their
properties, Arabs from other parts of Iraq. This Arabization program
basically aimed at ensuring that oil-rich areas of northern Iraq are not under
the control of minorities, that there are Arab--there is an Arab majority in
these areas that are traditionally homes to minorities.

GROSS: What reaction have you been getting to this war from the Kurds you've
been talking to? I mean, the Kurds really hate Saddam Hussein. Saddam
Hussein has ethnically cleansed them from certain towns. He gassed the Kurds.
So, you know, if anyone has a right to hate Saddam Hussein, it's certainly the
Kurds. But how are they seeing the war and how it's been going?

Mr. LANDAY: It's very multileveled, actually. It depends on who you talk
to. Senior Kurdish officials are extremely happy with what's going on. Their
number one priority is to see Saddam out of power. But when you talk to other
people, for instance, ordinary people--I spent about an hour sitting in a
barbershop yesterday just chatting with the guy who owns the place and a
couple of his friends--they're kind of frustrated because they follow what's
going on in the south on satellite television, particularly Al-Jazeera, the
Arabic-language television, and they're getting frustrated that there hasn't
been a similar offensive by the United States opened from the north.

On the other hand, if you talk to other people--I talked to a group of guys
who were sort of standing around a fire yesterday in one of the bazaars trying
to keep warm--they were quite happy with what's going on. Again, their mood
reflected one of relief that somebody is trying to get rid of the man who has
oppressed them for so many years.

GROSS: Is there a sense of confidence that America and England will win this
war and that Saddam Hussein is history, or do you get the feeling that the
Kurds are still unsure about which way it's going to go?

Mr. LANDAY: No, I haven't found that on the part of anybody I've talked to.
There seems to be this confidence perhaps bred by American propaganda, US
administration propaganda that the United States military is the best and that
it's unbeatable and that they're going to continue fighting this war until
Saddam is gone, and that's the message that people are believing here.

And yet there are some apprehensions if you talk to people. One of the guys I
was talking to yesterday was expressing concern for ordinary civilians in
other parts of Iraq. They're worried about the humanitarian aid concern--the
humanitarian aid situation. They're worried about civilians in places like
Nasiriyah, in places like Najaf, in places like Basra not having food and not
having water. And they would like to see this war over with, they say,
because they don't want to see ordinary Iraqis--they say not just the Kurds,
but all Iraqis have been suffering under Saddam.

GROSS: My guest is Jonathan Landay, national security correspondent for
Knight Ridder newspapers. He's in northern Iraq. We'll talk more after a
break. This is FRESH AIR.


GROSS: Let's get back to the interview we recorded earlier today with
Jonathan Landay, who's in northern Iraq. He's the national security
correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers.

You've been spending a lot of time in Chamchamal, which you write, has

Mr. LANDAY: Yes, I have.

GROSS: You say it's become a town of men, that almost all the women and
children are gone. Where have they fled to and why have they fled?

Mr. LANDAY: Most of them have fled to relatives who live in villages in the
inner parts of the Kurdish enclave or fled towards the Iranian border because
there is this lingering concern, this lingering terror, actually, that Saddam
may use chemical weapons against this part of Iraq, particularly if it's used
as a springboard for the launching of a northern front by US forces. And
therefore, a lot of people--most men have sent their families out of the city
and then returned to take care of their own properties. Plus, the fact that
Chamchamal sits--the end of Chamchamal sits literally 500 yards from the
end--from the Iraqi front lines defending Kirkuk.

Now it's curious. I just received a telephone call from somebody down in
Chamchamal who says that the Kurdish rebels have taken control of a major
bunker complex on those Iraqi front lines about 500 yards from Chamchamal.
These are bunkers that were bombed earlier in the day--yesterday repeatedly by
the United States and several times before then. So it seems that it was
quite a smart idea for a lot of people to get their families out because it
looks like there could be a lot of fighting in Chamchamal in the coming hours
and days.

GROSS: You've also spent a lot of time in Shorish(ph), which is about 25
miles away from Kirkuk. And this is a town that's basically like a
resettlement program. These are people who were ethnically cleansed from

Mr. LANDAY: Most of these people were ethnically cleansed from Kirkuk.
There are about 45,000 people who are living in pretty bad conditions.
They're rudimentary homes. They've been there for a while, so people have
settled in, but you know, it's open sewers, muddy roads, no regular plumbing,
although they do have stand pipes where people--you know, sort of community
faucets where people can fill up their water containers. And there are water
deliveries, but essentially, this is a place of internally displaced people
who have been there beginning in 1988. And then another wave of them was
pushed out in 1991 after the collapse of the Kurdish uprising.

And so it's kind of an interesting place that's survived to a great extent on
smuggling. A lot of the men who live there still have family on the other
side of the Iraqi lines. And really, the only thing they could do to
supplement their incomes--and their incomes, I should say, are only the food
they get through the UN oil-for-food program--is to smuggle. And as soon as
the Iraqis started building up their forces on these front lines, most of
these guys had to stop smuggling because it became too dangerous. And
therefore, the poverty in Shorish has increased quite substantially. And
again, like Chamchamal, which is very close to Shorish, most of the men have
taken their families out of this place, because it's even closer to the Iraqi
front lines than Chamchamal. And in fact, sometimes the Iraqi troops on the
front lines fire into the buildings at the end of Shorish. So it's a kind of
dangerous place also.

GROSS: It must be strange to be in these towns of all men.

Mr. LANDAY: It was kind of amusing to be down there the other day, because
the guys who are really doing a great business are the kabob-makers, the guys
in the--you know, who have these carts in the street, or small stores where
they cook over charcoal fires. They make minced-meat kabobs out of mutton.
And you know, they're telling me that they're doing fantastic business because
a lot of these men don't know how to cook.

GROSS: Oh, sure.

Mr. LANDAY: We're talking about a pretty male-dominated society here in
which the women do all the cooking. And suddenly there are no women around
to cook, so the kabob-makers are having a field day.

GROSS: Now Kirkuk is still controlled by Saddam Hussein. And you've reported
that residents of Kirkuk have been told to leave their doors open for Iraqi
soldiers so that the soldiers can take shelter if an aerial assault begins.
They must be living in terror.

Mr. LANDAY: Well, I think they've been living in terror long before this
war. The terror has only increased. We're talking about a regime that has
been at odds with the Kurds and has been persecuting the Kurds for decades,
and therefore--and has discriminated against these people in a way that few
minorities anywhere in the world have experienced. You know, they've been
bombed with chemical weapons, they've been executed, slaughtered in mass
murder, and these people, the Kurds who live in Kirkuk, have been living under
the boot of the people who did this to them.

And that is why the issue of Kirkuk is such a poignant one because it is here
where there could be an explosion in ethnic bloodshed once or if Kirkuk is
taken over by American forces. And this is one of the issues that the Bush
administration is going to have to deal with. So, yes, we've talked--we can
actually get through to people sometimes on the phone in Kirkuk. You've got
to talk very surreptitiously in code. You can't use names. And they do
describe conditions there as being pretty terrifying. They also talk about
where some of the bombing has been hitting, but it's something that we do few
and far between because of the danger to these people.

GROSS: Is this your first time covering a war, Jonathan?

Mr. LANDAY: No, it's not. I've been covering conflict, particularly ethnic
and religious conflict--and not through choice. It's something that I just
fell into when I first became a foreign correspondent in 1985. I was sent to
India and I spent five years there. And this was at the time of the Soviet
occupation of Afghanistan. And it was part of my beat to cover Afghanistan.
And also at the time, there was Sikh insurrection in the Indian--northern
Indian state of Punjab and the insurrection by Muslim fundamentalists in the
Indian portion of Kashmir. And then at the same time there was a civil war
going on in Sri Lanka. And all of this was on my beat. And I just--as I
said, it just kind of happened that I began covering conflict then.

And in 1990, I just happened to be transferred from New Delhi to Belgrade,
former Yugoslavia. And I spent five years covering the Yugoslav conflict.
And so no, this is not my first conflict.

GROSS: Jonathan Landay, recorded earlier today from northern Iraq. Landay is
the national security correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers. We'll
continue the interview 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.

We're going to hear more of the interview we recorded earlier today with
Jonathan Landay, who is in northern Iraq. He's the national security
correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers. Landay has been reporting from
towns that are part of the Kurdish enclave, where Kurds have been living under
their own rule, protected from Saddam Hussein by the no-fly zone. Last night
1,000 US paratroopers dropped into northern Iraq, opening a northern front.
One of their missions may be to secure the oil fields of Kirkuk.

Now you're talking to us from the side of the road on your satellite phone a
few miles away from Kirkuk. Yes?

Mr. LANDAY: I guess I'm about 30 miles from Kirkuk, where I am now.

GROSS: OK. Are you alone in your car?

Mr. LANDAY: No, I have my translator and my driver with me.

GROSS: And have you been traveling with them all over?

Mr. LANDAY: With my driver--I've been with him ever since I got here. My
translator is relatively new because my first translator lay down the
condition that when he first went to work for me that once the war started, he
was going to have to take care of his family, and he really didn't want to get
too close to Chamchamal or that particular area. And we agreed that he would
leave me once the war started, so he has done so. We still communicate quite
frequently. He does do some fact-checking for me back in Sulaymaniyah. We're
in contact over cellular telephones. But yeah, he's no longer working for me.

GROSS: You're in something of a waiting period. You're kind of waiting for
something to happen in Kirkuk, for a battle to start in Kirkuk. Is this an
apprehensive period for you as you wait for that to start, not knowing what
will happen and what the outcome will be?

Mr. LANDAY: Absolutely. I mean, it's been this--everybody tends to sit
around and speculate: Well, what's going to go on next? Well, if this
happens, then maybe this won't happen. And if they do this, then maybe they
won't do that. And the whole question is, how--I mean, the biggest question
in my mind is, how am I going to cover what I'm supposed to cover? Will I
even be able to cover what I'm supposed to cover? You know, my understanding
is that down in the south, a lot of journalists have gone unilaterally, like
myself. Journalists who are not embedded with US forces have not been able to
cross over from Kuwait into southern Iraq, and if they have, it's been a
fairly dicey thing. And so the big question in my mind and the mind of all
the unilateral journalists who are here--and many of us have been here for
months now--is whether or not we're going to even be able to go cover the
story that we're here to cover because there's a chance that we could be
stopped by US troops if an offensive is ever launched or by Kurdish rebels who
have now agreed to put themselves under the command of General Tommy Franks.

So that is one of the questions uppermost in our minds, but also, the whole
question of our safety is always one that we're constantly asking ourselves,
constantly assessing. When I go down to Chamchamal to stay, to Shorish(ph) to
stay, I have guards 24 hours, watching the place where I stay. We decided to
take stickers off our car today which said `TV' on them, only because it kind
of makes us stand out, and that's something we don't want to do. And then
there's also the threat from Ansar al-Islam. There was a journalist killed
about five or six days ago. The question is whether or not he was targeted or
not. He was standing on the side of the road, an Australian cameraman,
filming and there are indications that the car bomber that killed him actually
aimed for him.

So, yeah, there are these concerns also. When things get too dangerous, if
they get too dangerous, I'm going to pull back and wait and just assess and
see what I'm going to do. So, yeah, that's a process that's constantly going
on in my mind.

GROSS: Is there a lot of debate in your mind about your responsibilities as a
journalist and your responsibilities to just protect yourself?

Mr. LANDAY: Absolutely. One of the things that my bosses are absolutely
adamant about is that there's no story that is worth risking your life for,
absolutely none. And I think one of the reasons I was sent by my bosses, that
I was selected to do this particular job is because of the experience I've had
doing this kind of thing for almost 15 years now, using the judgment that I've
acquired over this time to determine when things are safe enough for me to do
my job and when they're not. And, you know, the bosses have this confidence
in me, and again, that's why I've been sent here and I guess that's why a lot
of the journalists who have been sent to this part of Iraq--that that's the
confidence their bosses have in them also.

GROSS: Are you feeling like you did the right thing by choosing to be an
independent journalist and to not be embedded?

Mr. LANDAY: I'm not sure. I'm sure my wife is very pleased that I didn't
get embedded because I'd be in the middle of some very dangerous fighting
right now, and I haven't had to face that at all here. And there's still a
question of whether or not, you know, that's going to even happen where I am.
And if it does, you know, again, I will use my judgment that I've accumulated
over all these years to determine where I go and when I go. I'm certainly not
going to cross over towards Kirkuk until there's a collapse of the Iraqi
troops, if there's a collapse of the Iraqi troops guarding Kirkuk, and that is
why I have based myself where I am, down near the front lines, because we will
actually be able to see when or if that happens.

You know, you have to determine when things are not safe for you to stay where
you are, and also, I have to say that we are with people, Kurds who know the
area, who are from Kirkuk, who have been back and forth quite regularly
through the lines, know where all the Iraqi positions are, know where the
areas of danger are and where there are areas of safety. And these are people
whose judgments I also will rely on.

GROSS: Well, Jonathan, I wish you good luck and safety, and I really want to
thank you a lot for talking with us. Thank you.

Mr. LANDAY: It's my pleasure.

GROSS: Jonathan Landay, recorded earlier today from northern Iraq. Landay is
the national security correspondent for Knight Ridder newspapers.

Coming up, we talk with New York Times foreign correspondent John Burns, who
is in Baghdad. This is FRESH AIR.

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

Interview: John Burns discusses what he has seen of the war in

My guest, John Burns, is in Baghdad. He's a foreign correspondent for The New
York Times. He's won Pulitzer Prizes for his coverage of the Taliban's
takeover of Afghanistan and for his reporting from Bosnia. We called him
earlier today in his hotel room.

As we record this, it's morning in the East Coast of the United States. It's
afternoon where you are in Baghdad. What has your day been like? What have
you done? How close have you been to the bombing today?

Mr. JOHN BURNS (Foreign Correspondent, The New York Times): Well, I'll start
with our night. That's to say, our Wednesday night into Thursday. We were
aware from statements that had been made in Qatar, the central command
headquarters for the war, and in Washington that attention was going to turn
to certain telecommunications buildings in Baghdad and in addition to the
Republican Guard formations southwest of the city, which are facing the 3rd
Infantry Division as it advances towards Baghdad. And in the course of the
night, there were a series of massive explosions, easily the biggest single
explosions that we have heard since the war began a week ago. One of them in
particular from across the river was so powerful, you could have imagined it
was an earthquake. The 20-story Palestine Hotel, in which I'm staying, shook
and I imagined for a moment that it might actually fall to the ground. It
wasn't until past dawn we were able to discover what the target of that strike
had been. It turned out to be the principal telecommunications or telephone
headquarters for southern Baghdad. That's to say, the telephone system that
serves the part of the city where much of the government and many of Saddam
Hussein's palaces are centered.

And the intriguing thing about that strike--and I have just returned from
seeing it for the first time, the result of it--this building is a massive
block of a building rising to perhaps 12 or 15 stories, and it sits
immediately adjacent to what is known as the Saddam Tower. It's a 700-foot
tower of a kind that the citizens of Seattle, for example, would be very
familiar. It's a needle with a restaurant about two-thirds of the way up.
What the United States military planners did was they managed to put a bomb, a
massive bomb, right on the roof of the telecommunications center without so
much as damaging in any way, other than a few broken windows, the tower, the
Saddam Tower, which stands perhaps--I mean, I'm guessing here, but no more
than about 50 or 60 yards across open ground from it. Once again, they've
obviously decided to save what can be saved here. They're going after the
military targets.

GROSS: How close have any of the bombs come to you?

Mr. BURNS: Well, this afternoon, they came very close. The Ministry of
Information building, another vast, gargantuan structure that sits in the same
government quarter of the city--we have been warned repeatedly by the Pentagon
that we should not go there, that it's a potential military target. Our
judgment has been that since the ministry insists on holding news conferences
there and the Pentagon can see us coming in and going out, that they will not
destroy it, at least during the day. Today that turned out to be not the best
judgment because we were gathered for a news conference at midafternoon for
one of the ministers, and just as we were assembled in the briefing room, two
huge explosions struck. We don't know exactly what they struck, but they were
close enough that everybody abandoned the building immediately, and it was the
first time that I've seen the press corps here with a sense of real alarm.
Otherwise, we have seen many of these strikes from our hotel balconies

And you can occasionally glimpse the cruise missiles. You certainly hear
them. One of them came past the other night, and I would guess--just a
guess--from the sound of it, it was a little bit like being on the edge of a
military airfield when a low-flying supersonic jet goes by. I would think it
was passing within about 500 yards of where I was standing.

GROSS: What's your sense of popular opinion now in Baghdad? Is the United
States being seen as liberators or occupiers?

Mr. BURNS: You know, the honest answer to that is that nobody can tell, in
the sense that Mr. Gallup could were this another kind of society altogether,
exactly where the balance of public opinion lies. What we do know is that
there are sharp divides here. It's no surprise to say that there are large
numbers of loyalists of Saddam Hussein who still at this hour hold a monopoly
of physical power. How numerous they are we don't know, but they certainly
are in the tens of thousands.

There are others at the other end of the spectrum who we have heard from in
the last years, only by whispers, who very much want another kind of Iraq, a
free Iraq, an Iraq free from fear and free from terror. One might surmise
that they are very numerous indeed from the various indications that we get

In the middle ground there are people who are concerned above all for their
own safety. And that is to say, these are people who, even if they would wish
for a new Iraq, do not wish to see their families put out the kind of hazards
that they think they will be by an American siege of Baghdad in an attempt to
overthrow Saddam Hussein.

GROSS: But it...

Mr. BURNS: My sense is that--go ahead. I'm sorry.

GROSS: No, no. I was going to say, it certainly sounds like it's not a
clear-cut issue that the Iraqis see the United States and British as

Mr. BURNS: Well, you know something? We will know that only at the end of
this. But I think you have to remember that the penalty for free expression
of opinion here is extremely severe. Within the last hour, an Iraqi known to
me and a person of considerable personal fortitude, frightened by the sense
that he might be considered to be less than completely loyal, was reduced in a
moment to the most pitiable state of fear and shaking. He said, `They will
shoot me. They will shoot me.' I don't know if that's literally true, but I
do know that in 30 years of reporting on hard places and hard times, I have
never been in a country where people are so afraid. Thus, trying to peer
beyond this, to find out what people really think, is extremely difficult.

GROSS: I know you just mentioned the person who you know well who was, you
know, reduced to, quote, "quivering" because he was afraid he would be shot by
the Saddam Hussein regime because of something he said or did. You've, I
think, implied in your reporting that even your minders, the people assigned
by the Saddam Hussein government to mind you as a journalist, if you do the
wrong thing by those standards, they can get in trouble and be terribly
punished. So that puts you in a funny position, doesn't it?

Mr. BURNS: You know, there's always a danger. I'm very, very aware of the
risk of journalists making themselves the story. And I, as a British passport
holder and a correspondent for The New York Times, have protections here that
most of the 24 million people of Iraq do not have. That being said, I do not
remember a time in my 30 years now as a foreign correspondent that is anywhere
near as complicated as this is. And one of the complications is the one
you've just mentioned, which is that whatever we calculate, however we make
the calculus for our own safety in chasing stories, we have to always keep in
mind that the hazards are not ones we take for ourselves alone, that we have
drivers and minders or, as they prefer to call themselves, guides who are very
much more exposed than we are. I have been in the execution chamber at the
Abu Ghareeb prison, which is the heart of the Iraqi gulag, about 20 kilometers
west of where I am now sitting, and I have seen the butchers' hooks--have row
upon row in the ceiling. So I know where the story ends here for people who
have been judged to be disloyal or plotters or in some way who have crossed
the regime.

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

(Soundbite of music)

GROSS: John Burns is speaking to us from Baghdad. He's reporting from
Baghdad for The New York Times.

Can you see signs of preparation within Baghdad for urban war, for a conflict
between the coalition forces and the Iraqi troops?

Mr. BURNS: Well, in a sense, that's a very easy question to answer. Saddam
Hussein's government has said all along that if war came, they would fight it
with all means at their disposal. We have already seen the power of which
they dispose. If they haven't given the United States and the United Kingdom
a riff on the nose or a black eye in the last week, they have certainly shown
that they have very powerful resistance, I think considerably greater than the
Pentagon expected and, to be honest, most of us who have reported here in the
last years expected, because of our own estimate of, if you will, the
exhaustion of the Iraqi people after 30 years under this government.

Baghdad is the core of this whole issue. It's a city of five million people.
It sits on the flat desert. It's about 30 to 35 miles across. It's a huge
city. Taking this city and toppling its government will be an enormously
complicated exercise. And we know how the defense of the city will be
conducted already because the Iraqi leadership has told us it will be done
just as the defense of Basra and other cities has been conducted, with mainly
irregular forces. We know that those forces have a tremendous degree of
political commitment. They will fight to the end, and they are dispersed
around the city. One can see that just moving around Baghdad, with the Ba'ath
Party and...

GROSS: But where do you see them?

Mr. BURNS: Well, you see them in pickup trucks everywhere. It intrigued me.
I'm beginning to realize now why it was that in the latter months of last year
enormous numbers of pickup trucks were being imported to Iraq. And I crossed
that border west of here to Jordan probably a number of times. And one
evening I saw 600 of these Japanese pickup trucks, of the kind that would be
familiar to Americans--600 of them sitting on transporters inbound to Iraq. I
now realize what that was all about. As early as last October Saddam Hussein
knew how he was going to fight this war, and the pickup truck is the basic
combat vehicle of the irregulars. They can carry 10 or 12 people in them.
The can mount a machine gun in the back. They can carry bazookas,
rocket-propelled grenades and, of course, Kalashnikovs and pistols. And they
are mean customers. These are not people that you would want to cross. And
there are large numbers of them in Baghdad. In effect, they are the shock
troops, the guerrillas of this regime.

The main army and the Republican Guard, of course, are deployed out in a
perimeter defense of the city. And one can only imagine how complex an issue
it will be once the United States Armed Forces get to the crux of the matter,
which is the capture or elimination of the president of Iraq. He has many,
many options. He's told us that again and again. And I thought at one point,
as many of us did, that this might be a short war. I think that we would be
wise to assume that the siege of Baghdad could last weeks and weeks, two
months, possibly more, rather than the week or two or three that some of us
thought a week ago it was likely to be.

GROSS: Would you stay for the siege to cover it, or would you go to a safer

Mr. BURNS: You know, I think that I can say--and it doesn't distinguish me
from my colleagues here--that every single one of us will stay if we are
allowed to. It may seem strange to people watching this war from afar on
television, but we are a happy band of brothers and sisters here. This is
what they pay us money to do. The life of a foreign correspondent is an
adventure. It's endlessly intriguing. It calls on every resource that we
have. And to be here at the heart of this drama is extremely engaging,
extremely engaging, and I would not wish to be anywhere else. I actually
think, odd as it might seem to some of your listeners, I think every morning
when I wake up how lucky I am to be here and how many people in my profession
and at my newspaper would happily take my place.

GROSS: Well, here you are--and, I mean, you are risking your life to cover
this war, but here you are in a hotel in Baghdad where I'm not sure if you're
seen by the people at the hotel as the friend or the enemy or just purely the
customer. What is your relationship with the people who work at the hotel?

Mr. BURNS: Do you know, you've asked exactly the right question, and it may
be that the answer to this will tell your listeners more than anything else I
could say about the likely outcome of this war. I am here as a representative
of The New York Times, one of the principal newspapers in the United States of
America, which has declared war on Iraq. I carry a British passport, which is
the combatant ally of the United States. Everywhere I go in Baghdad, I am
greeted with enormous amiability and enthusiasm, and I can think of no
exception to that.

I'll tell you that I was yesterday at the site of the bombing attack, which
the Iraqis blamed on the United States military, in which 17 Iraqis died and
45 were injured, and that in the--I don't know if there is such a phrase; I
think it's something we'll have to invent if it doesn't exist--`mud rain' of
Baghdad. There was this sandstorm which had darkened the city for days on
end, but it began to rain, and rain pours as spattering mud. And so we were
surrounded by this quite ghastly satanic scene of blasted workshops and homes
and burned-out, carbonized cars and--your listeners will forgive me--but body
parts and pools of blood and so forth. And the people who gathered there in
that spattering mud rain were coming up to me and to John Lee Anderson of The
New Yorker, who I tend to spend a great deal of time with here, and asking
from which countries we came. And as we answered respectively `England,
Britain, the United States,' we had our hands taken in vigorous handshakes,
broad smiles. `You are welcome. You are welcome.'

Now this may be simply that the people of Iraq, who are very, very intelligent
people, are capable of making the sort of distinction between a government and
a people that any civilized people would make, or it could be that encoded in
that reaction was something much, much larger. My own inclination is to think
that as my late sainted mother used to say, `It does not mean nothing.'

GROSS: Well, John Burns, I wish you safety. Thank you so much for talking
with us. Thank you for the reporting that you're doing.

Mr. BURNS: Thank you very much.

GROSS: John Burns, speaking to us from Baghdad in an interview recorded
earlier today. Burns is a foreign correspondent for The New York Times.


GROSS: I'm Terry Gross.

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