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Baghdad: To Hell and Back

Filmmaker, Gwynne Roberts.

Filmmaker, Gwynne Roberts.

Editor's Note: When filmmaker Gwynne Roberts sent an email recently telling us that excerpts from his FRONTLINE/World documentary "Saddam's Road to Hell" had been shown at Saddam's trial, we asked him if he would write an update on the film since it first aired on PBS a year ago. In his report below, he shares not only details of Saddam's reaction to the film in the courtroom last December, but the film's impact in the Middle East, where it's now been widely circulated. Roberts' film follows the investigation into the disappearance of thousands of Iraqi-Kurdish men and boys from the Barzani clan during Saddam's regime. The filmmaker also recounts a recent trip to Baghdad where he met up again with Dr. Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish human rights minister who finally locates some of the missing men, buried in mass graves in southern Iraq. The discovery of the graves is the sad conclusion to Roberts' film. Against the drone of U.S. helicopter gunships battling insurgents inside the Green Zone, Dr. Ihsan tells Roberts how much more dangerous his life has become since the film found a wider audience. But far from shying away from another tough challenge, Dr. Ihsan is now the Kurdish minister in charge of negotiating the future of Kirkuk, a flashpoint issue, says Roberts, that could soon result in all-out civil war between Arabs and Kurds in the north. -- Jackie Bennion

* * *

Saddam Hussein watched in silence as video images of some of the horrors of his regime were screened in court some 13 months into his trial in Baghdad.

The footage shown in December 2006 was selected from "Saddam's Road to Hell," a documentary I made for FRONTLINE/World broadcast a year ago across the United States.

The film showed what happened to 8,000 men and boys aged from 8 to 65 years old from the Barzani clan. These Iraqi-Kurds were shipped off in Iraqi army trucks back in 1983, and have been missing and presumed dead ever since. In the report, we followed Dr. Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish human rights minister, on a journey the length of Iraq as he tried to find out what had happened to his compatriots, victims of one of Saddam's earliest mass killings.

Following a trail of documents, video evidence, and personal testimony, Dr. Ishan eventually managed to locate the graves of 500 Barzanis close to the border with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait.

Following a trail of documents, video evidence, and personal testimony, he eventually managed to locate the graves of 500 Barzanis close to the border with Saudi Arabia and Kuwait. The bodies were blindfolded, and hands tied behind their backs, proof that they had been executed. Their Kurdish clothing and identity cards proved beyond doubt these were the missing Barzanis. At last, after 22 years, he could arrange the removal of their remains from the featureless deserts of southern Iraq back to the mountains of Barzan province in the far north, to be buried near their home villages with full ceremony.

In the court room, I was told by eyewitnesses present for the trial that Saddam watched excerpts from the film, including sequences shot in 1987 showing dead Kurdish children gassed following the chemical attacks he himself had ordered; a black and white Iraqi TV clip in which Saddam made a speech just weeks after the Barzanis' disappearance boasting that they had been sent to hell; and Dr. Ihsan digging up the pathetic remains of the executed Kurds from their desert graves.

Dr. Ihsan's investigation and evidence established a direct causal link between the Iraqi dictator and the murder of the Barzanis. I was told by those inside the court that Saddam Hussein was uncharacteristically silenced by what he saw. By that stage, he himself had already been sentenced to death, and his sentence was carried out on December 30.

Skull removed from mass grave.

Dr. Ihsan's team works carefully to remove remains from a mass grave discovered in the deserts of Southern Iraq.

The investigation into the fate of the Barzanis had also proved a costly venture for our team in terms of human life. Four people died in Iraq during the production, including my colleague and friend, cameraman John Williams. Nevertheless, despite everything, there has to be a sense of achievement that a story I had worked on for 20 years had been laid to rest, and that Saddam had been finally brought to justice.

For the Barzani families who had lost fathers, husbands, sons and friends, the investigation was vital to bring them a measure of peace and closure. Ever since they had gone missing, their families had hoped against all the odds that somehow they would come back alive. Now they were able to grieve and get on with their lives.

Yet, there is one part of the story that continues to be unfinished business. Dr. Ihsan said in the film that unless Iraqis face up to their bloody past, they would be unable to make a future together. Shias and Kurds had suffered severely under Saddam's Sunni regime, but these mass executions could not have been carried out without the help of thousands of supporters. These supporters of state terror are working with the insurgency, and see Dr. Ihsan -- thanks to his investigation -- as their mortal enemy.

The film has been broadcast in more than 20 countries including Iraq, and it has made Dr. Ihsan known throughout the Middle East.

The film has been broadcast in more than 20 countries including Iraq, and it has made him known throughout the Middle East. Dr. Ihsan is also now in charge of an even more sensitive ministerial portfolio.

He is the Kurdish minister in charge of negotiations over Kirkuk, the oil-rich province the Kurds want to see incorporated into Kurdistan later this year. It's one of the hottest issues in Iraq and could be the flashpoint for an all-out civil war involving Arabs and Kurds. It also has the potential to involve the Turks who are desperate to stop the Kurds taking over the province with its oil reserves of around 10 billion barrels.

His high profile involvement in the Barzani case and now in the Kirkuk issue has drawn him inexorably into the firing line. "I've been warned that I'm one of the Baathists' main targets in Iraq," he told me when I visited him recently in Baghdad.

Dr. Mohammed Ihsan, Kurdish Human Rights Minister.

Dr. Mohammed Ihsan, the Kurdish human rights minister, who is now tasked with negotiating the future of the oil-rich region of Kirkuk.

As we talked over lunch in the Green Zone, U.S. helicopter gunships began firing on insurgents on Haifa Street a few blocks away. Outside the restaurant, Peruvian soldiers, part of the Coalition, were on guard.

"I don't feel safe even in this hotel," said Dr. Ihsan. "There are people working here who inform the insurgents about hotel guests. If it weren't for these foreign soldiers, this hotel would be overrun in a week."

Days later, after I'd left, Dr. Ihsan's fears proved real. He survived an assassination attempt just outside the Green Zone. He was driving to the airport to catch a flight to northern Iraq when snipers opened fire on the Opel ahead of him. It blew up killing everybody inside.

"I had switched vehicles as a security precaution just as I left my hotel," he told me. "It was a last-minute decision but changing my Opel for a Peugeot saved my life."

Within minutes, U.S. checkpoint troops closed the road though the attackers had melted away.

"It's only a matter of time before they try again," said Dr. Ihsan.

Saddam has been executed but the civil war in Iraq is intensifying, and Baathist insurgents are growing bolder by the day.

* * *

Gwynne Roberts is a veteran filmmaker who has reported for many years in the Middle East. If you missed the PBS broadcast of "Saddam's Road to Hell", you can watch it online on the FRONTLINE/World Web site.


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