Frontline World

IRAQ - Truth and Lies in Baghdad, November, 2002

Synopsis of "Truth and Lies in Baghdad"

Undercover in Iraq

Saddam's Family Tree and Son Uday

Are They Helping or Hurting?

Reporting from a Closed State

Coverage of Saddam's Regime

Country Profile of Iraq

Human Rights, Politics, Weapons



Interview with Sam Kiley: Undercover in Iraq

Sam in a market
FRONTLINE/World Series Editor Stephen Talbot had an opportunity to catch up with Sam Kiley, reporter of "Truth and Lies in Baghdad," in a candid telephone interview just before broadcast. As a former Times of London Bureau Chief for Africa and the Middle East, Kiley is no stranger to reporting in repressive environments and conflict zones. His first assignment to Iraq was in 1998. Find out what was different this time around, what to make of Saddam's surprising mass release of prisoners and the "Kafkaesque confusion" of what to say and not say in Saddam's Iraq.

When you go into a situation like Iraq are you thinking about the consequences of your reporting? This is a time when the United States and the United Nations are debating war and peace. You've brought us back a very provocative story with some new horrors, public beheadings...

I have very strong reservations about the whole American foreign policy in the Middle East. You know, I'm not interested in feeding a war machine. But one can't pull one's punches just because you think that wrong-headed people are going to use your information. I have mixed views about whether or not it's a good idea [to invade Iraq]. Yes, it would be great for the people of Iraq to get rid of Saddam. It'd also be nice to have democracy in Saudi Arabia...But in a sense that's not my problem. My problem is to try and do justice to the story.

Iraq is an intense place to drop into. What other kind of reporting had you done that prepared you for this?

Sam converses with people
I was the Africa bureau chief for the Times [of London] for eight years. So I covered, in terms of conflicts, the collapse of Mengistu's regime [in Ethiopia], the Somali famine, the American debacle in Somalia, the Rwanda and Burundi civil wars, the Angolan civil war, the civil strife in South Africa, Sierra Leone, Liberia. I managed to get myself shot in Lesotho.

Really? What happened there?

I just pushed my luck at a roadblock, one roadblock too far, and a guy shot me, in the arm. Tried to shoot me all over the place. But I mean, I'm lucky, I managed to drive us out of there.

What about the Middle East?

I'd been to Iraq twice in '98 and then two trips this year. I became the Middle East Bureau Chief for the Times for two years, so then I covered the intifada and the Israeli withdrawal from South Lebanon. Iraq is the most restricted environment I've ever worked in, but in terms of personal safety it was by no means troublesome.

You're a hardcore war correspondent, Sam.

Well, it's not a word I particularly like, but I am by default. If you happen to cover places where war's going on then in one sense you get typecast. Also, any fool can cover a war, really, so long as you stay alive. You just walk around going, "Christ!" and then writing it all down. Wars write themselves.

You're a print man. This was your first experience with television. What was that like?

I thought it was pretty fun. TV's a pretty slow process as you know, but I really enjoyed it.

Sam sits on the ground and talks with people
How many in your crew?

We started with a three-man team in Jordan, then we lost our cameraman, so Andrew Smith, the producer-director then also became the cameraman. So in the end it was essentially a two-man effort from beginning to end.

You were in Iraq in 1998. What was different this time?

The situation was markedly different from what it was in '98 because of the Oil-for-Food program. In 1998 there was no question that sanctions were doing a hell of a lot of damage to perfectly innocent people. Sanctions continue to very seriously affect people's well being but it isn't the humanitarian catastrophe that sanctions were producing back in '98. That was an immediate and glaring difference.

In your report you go into a hospital and ask whether the U.N. oil for food program has improved things and you get mixed messages. You also report that the Iraqi government has suppressed its own study saying that health conditions actually have improved.

Thus far the government has refused to publish it. But they don't say so explicitly. It simply goes from one committee to another and then there'll be endless amounts of excuses as to why it hasn't yet been published. But in the view of foreign diplomats in Iraq, it has not been published because it shows too significant an improvement. They are no longer suffering shortages and thank God for that.

Sam with the press
What was interesting about the visit to the hospital and our whole trip is that when Iraqis don't know the script they get paralyzed. They know they're supposed to tell foreign journalists that sanctions are evil -- arguably such sanctions are evil -- but in '98 they said sanctions were evil because they were killing kids and that basically doesn't exist any more because they've got access to the drugs and food. The doctors know they have to complain that there is malnutrition. But they are also worried that if they say there's malnutrition they'll be criticizing their government. So they're locked into this sort of Kafkaesque confusion. You're damned if you do, and you're damned if you don't.

What about the reports of beheadings? What put you on to that story in the first place?

Doing background reading before going to Iraq these things pop out, you know, a line here, a line there in human rights reports. Then when we were talking to exiles living in Jordan, this sort of story came up. And there was something about it, it was different. We know Saddam imprisons his enemies. But this was a kind of new twist in horror. They [the beheadings] happened in the space of two years. They're not really happening any more so far as we're aware, but people are still talking about them...

I'm always intrigued by the mechanisms of these things. You know, if you want to understand an oppressive regime, you've got to look at the motive behind it. Evil just isn't evil. There are motives. In Sierra Leone why did the rebels hack off the hands of all these people? If you take somebody's hands away in a subsistence environment, you condemn them to a long, slow, painful, humiliating, agonizing death. It's more horrifying than being murdered. In Iraq, this beheading thing seemed to be a way of terrorizing and suppressing the population...News of the hackings are spread by word of mouth, they're not broadcast on TV, they're not referred to in the newspapers, but they happen. And they're done by the Fedayeen Saddam, who have become Iraq's bogeymen.

Sam with boat in background
You started your journey in Jordan. An American diplomat was recently killed there. You describe an atmosphere of fear and intimidation when you asked people in Jordan about Saddam. Tell us more about what Jordan is like at the moment.

Jordan is a delightful, by Middle Eastern standards, very liberal, easygoing place. It just has a very nasty neighbor. And there are 300,000 Iraqis, a good number of whom are spooks and assassins who work for Saddam who are spying on the others. So Saddam has a long reach. There've been disappearances and murders of Iraqi dissidents. It is something that Iraqis live with. The Jordanian authorities themselves have to tread carefully. They're not only Iraq's neighbor, they're also Israel's neighbor and 60 percent of their population is Palestinian. Saddam Hussein is to some Palestinians a big hero because he supports their cause. You've got this place that is very sandwiched, a pro-Western country, with a significant part of the population that shares the ideology of bin Laden, so you've got an endlessly precarious situation for the Jordanians.

Let me ask you about your style. There's one moment when you're being herded with all the other reporters through one of these installations where they may have been trying to make nuclear weapons. And a guy is shoving you around and you turn to him and say, "If you push me, I'll break your arm."

[laughs] "Unhand me, sir." I think that's what you're supposed to say in documentaries, isn't it?

Right. That's more diplomatic. You're a little sharper tongued.

Yeah, I didn't know the camera was on. To be honest, if I'd known the camera was on I might not have been so open with my threat. But I don't like being pushed around, especially not when you're supposed to be treated as guests, you know, what is this crap?

One of the things that's interesting about your story is you show what other reporters in Iraq just mention in passing, that foreign journalists are always under the control of government minders.

Sam takes a photograph
I'm not knocking my colleagues for this because it's not them, it's their organizations, you know, "Don't piss the Iraqis off too much because you want to be there when the skies over Baghdad have been illuminated." That means that people don't tend to do human rights stories. They want to stay in the country. But if you look at [New York Times correspondent] John Burns's copy, for example, he slips it in every piece [that minders shadow him].

But as far as my style being quote unquote "aggressive" in this film, I actually try to use humor more...One of the only ways to deal with a dictatorship is to laugh at it. Iraqis get precious few opportunities to do so.

Just after you left Iraq, there was a release of prisoners, an amazing thing. Saddam lets everybody out. And some start speaking freely about the horrible prison conditions. There's even a public protest. What do you make of that?

Several things. A) They're very brave. B) You can be out of prison but you're not free in Iraq. Iraq is a prison. C) To some extent one might see this as the first sign that the jersey might start unraveling.

My personal analysis, for what it's worth, which isn't much, is that the moment they see gun ships on the horizon the Iraqis will flip. Nobody in Iraq other than a half-dozen brainwashed loonies are going to die for Saddam Hussein...

But that's not what people told you on camera in Iraq. They say they will fight Americans to the death, that they will die for Saddam, right?

Yeah, well, of course they do. What are they going to say? There isn't a lot of choice when a government minder is standing by.

Once CNN, the New York Times and others started reporting what some of the freed prisoners were saying, Iraq announced that they're going to throw all reporters out.

This is a new script, people [in the Iraqi information ministry] aren't familiar with it, they don't know where the boundaries lie...The government says, "Open the prisons," reporters cover it, then some of the freed prisoners start complaining. "Oh, shit, now that doesn't reflect very well on us, so we'll kick the reporters out." Then they say, "Oh, no, well, actually we're only going to kick some of them out." They've got their knickers in a twist because they're still trying to control the press.

What are your plans now?

I don't know. I just heard that mercenaries have turned up in the Ivory Coast, and I know some of them, so I might try to go and cover that story, but I'll have to see what comes up.

Well, as we say in America, watch your back.

OK. All the best.

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