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Discussion With U.N. Mideast Bureau Chief

Aired August 19, 2003 - 10:46   ET


KYRA PHILLIPS, CNN ANCHOR: We're going to going to the Mideast bureau chief for "Newsweek," Joshua Hammer. He is on the scene. We've got him on the phone right now. Joshua, can you just sort of set the scene? What are you seeing? And what can you tell us?
JOSHUA HAMMER, "NEWSWEEK" MIDEAST BUREAU CHIEF: I'm baking in the sun here. It's probably about 110 today. There are helicopters -- I'm about a quarter of a mile from the United Nations headquarters. I don't have a view of the actual damage, because that occurred on the other side of the building from where I'm facing. There are a lot of U.S. troops in Humvees blocking the roads, preventing anybody from getting any closer than where I am right now. Some helicopters are now appearing on the scene. In the sky right in front of me is filled with a long line of helicopters coming in toward the compound.

A lot of people standing around me. Survivors are starting to come out now in some numbers, and many of them are drenched in blood. A lot of people were standing near windows, a lot of glass blew in, and you're seeing a lot of -- these people all look like they have superficial injuries, but still, their clothes are stained with blood, and a lot of people look shaken up.

PHILLIPS: Joshua, giving us a picture for what's happening at the moment, but I want to go a bit broader with you right now. As we're hearing the sirens in the background, you let us know if you need to move from where you are. Obviously, rescue crews responding, ambulances responding to the injured there, and possibly more people trapped within the U.N. headquarters.

But, Joshua, you work for "Newsweek." We all know as we read "Newsweek," as the bureau chief in that will area, you look at the overall picture, and you address a number of issues, besides the stories like this that are breaking by the moment, but you've been looking at security issues, you've been looking at the reconstruction process in Iraq. You've been looking at the economic impact.

As you witness this today and watch what happens, what does this tell you? How is this going to affect your reporting as you've been living in this area and observing the reconstruction process? This is the first time this has happened.

HAMMER: Reporter: yes, you know, be clearly when you -- whoever set this bomb off was trying to send a clear message to the United Nations, as well as the United States. The U.N. is getting had in here now in a fairly big way, beginning to do a lot of humanitarian efforts, a lot of reconstruction efforts. In fact, I was on my way to the hotel a couple hours ago to meet with some U.N. DP people who were sounding pretty optimistic about the rehabilitation that was going on. The meeting was canceled, fortunately.

But you know, I've been here this trip probably about 10 days, and I keep going back and forth, thinking on the one hand things are looking quite a bit better than they were the last time I was here, which was the end of May, but hearing from afar, stories of bombs going off, killing of American soldiers. Clearly the electricity is a huge problem.

But I had thought it was really sort of a mixed bag, signs of improvement. At the same time, I thought the United States version of events was a bit hyped up, inflating the achievements that they'd actually achieved. I was still thinking, this could go either way. Events like this make me think it's going in the wrong direction. I mean, there's no question, this brings it home to me in a way that reading about attacks in Fallujah or northern Baghdad, which I didn't witness, didn't do. I mean, this clearly shows the threat is always here. The United States appears to be helpless to prevent it, and I mean, there's no doubt there's going to be more of this, and the question is, who's going to want to come in and do work here -- humanitarian work, relief work, rebuilding work? What companies are going to want to invest here if this kind of thing is happening on a regular basis?

It's a huge, huge setback, and the symbolism of it is powerful, and it was no doubt intended to be so by whoever set the bomb off.

PHILLIPS: Joshua, you bring up a really good point. It seems on a daily basis we've been talking about the loss of life, you know, Iraqis, also U.S. soldiers. We've focusing a lot on the raids and the hunt for Saddam Hussein.

But then on the other side of things, you've got dozens of schools that are reopening, you've got soldiers building desks for little Iraqi kids, you've got humanitarian efforts and development and refugee programs. So now, we see this happened, or this happen rather, and you talk about the setback.

But with regard to all those other civil projects going on, do you think those are going to have to come to a halt? I mean, are all the resources going to be forced to move toward security now, or do we need to kind of keep this in perspective?

HAMMER: I think you have to keep it in perspective. Similar things have happened in places like Kabul, Afghanistan, Kosovo, probably not quite this intense level.

But it's not Mogadishu yet. I spent a couple of years in Somalia in the early '90s, and I saw true anarchy, I mean true anarchy. You can spend a day driving around Baghdad now and really get the feeling, at least on a superficial level, that life is coming back to normal. Even at night in the area where I'm staying, shops, restaurants are open. Shops are filled with television sets, with refrigerators, with air-conditioners. They wouldn't be selling this stuff, you know, out of their shops in the evening if there was a grave fear of looting.

So that sense of anarchy that you had in late April and early May, mid-May, when I was here last, has largely at least in that area that I'm in, dissipated quite considerably. At the same time, there are -- I'm sorry, I'm being drowned out by a helicopter very close to me.

But at the same time, there are the huge problems, and every couple of days, you have the shootings of soldiers. You have a terrible incident like this reminding people that anarchy if it's not on the surface, you know, may be just below the surface.

So until the American forces can restore, can stop their own from bleeding, can prevent these attacks from taking place, I don't think you will ever have, for instance, a full working electricity. Everything is tied into security here. I mean, people don't come to work because there's no security. People aren't repairing the electrical lines because there's no security. Companies, like the German company Siemens, which is supposed to be repairing electric plants, won't come here because of security. So it's a fact of life, and it has to be fixed or Iraq will not come back to normal.

PHILLIPS: Mideast bureau chief for "Newsweek," Joshua Hammer, putting things in perspective for us. He's there on the scene. Joshua, thank you so much.


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