Sam Kiley reported his last piece for FRONTLINE/World,
"Truth and Lies in Baghdad,"
before the outbreak of war in Iraq. A veteran Middle East and
Africa reporter, Kiley works for many British and world print and broadcast outlets. FRONTLINE/World web editor
Sara Miles talked with him by telephone at his home in England
about his experiences with the Kurdish peshmerga guerrillas
in northern Iraq. Read how Kiley and his crew survived the war,
ethnic violence and their own near-execution.
How did you get into Kurdistan?
Outside Kirkuk, Kiley points to an explosion caused by an American bomb.
It was a very complicated procedure that I probably shouldn't
go into, but we entered from Syria. Like many other reporters,
I knew I wanted to be in the north when the war started. We
all were the last people in the world who'd get embedded. That's
the antithesis of journalism. It's bullshit. We made our way
to northern Iraq, ran into a bunch of peshmerga, and
they had no problem with us following them.
OK, the Kurds let you follow them, but why would American
Special Forces, who were with the Kurds, let you tag along?
They're very cool guys. I've worked a lot in conflicts, as
has Nick, my cameraman, and they could pick up that we knew
what to do, that we wouldn't be goofy, talk on the phone and
give away their position, endanger them. And Special Forces
have a different mentality than regular Army. If you've got
a million men on the ground, you have to make them behave in
a certain way, you rely on rules. Special Forces tend to be
more mature, more used to living in other cultures, they have
a much greater willingness to take initiative. And the fact
was, we were actually more interested in filming the peshmerga,
so the Special Forces could just hang out with us socially.
You found an amazing film of people being executed. Where
did you get it? Wasn't that the kind of material your Special
Forces friends would have wanted themselves?
Kiley introduces himself to a Bedouin man in the temporary settlement where the man's tribe is living after being evicted from their homes.
That film came through back routes. But it was basically Iraqi
government footage, it may even have been shown, under Saddam,
on Iraqi TV. The thing is that Saddam's government was proud
of those executions. And, like a lot of dictatorships, Iraq
was meticulous in recording what they did, including filming
torture and executions. The American and British forces didn't
know we had that film, and I certainly wouldn't have told them
I had it. I probably wouldn't have handed it over if they asked.
What's it like as a journalist when people appeal to you
for help? What can you do? What can't you do?
I don't get involved in prosecuting someone's agenda. But
if there's a legitimate humanitarian concern, of course you
Your film shows an American soldier, in a very earnest,
ahistorical way, trying to mediate between Kurds and Arabs
screaming at each other. He tries to convince them we can all
just get along -- is he crazy or naïve or prophetic?
Kiley watches a U.S. Special Forces captain mediate between two women, one Kurdish and one Iraqi, over ownership of a house in Kirkuk.
Actually I think he did exactly the right thing -- that is,
keep the peace until there's something he can do to change the
situation. Would I have been tempted to intervene and choose
sides? I've been in those situations when you're trying to get
between warring parties. When you know the background to the
Anfal [in which Saddam killed Kurds and forced them out of their
homes], it's not easy to go in and say to the Arabs [who were given
the Kurds' homes], "Sure, you can stay
here." On the other hand, maybe right is on the side of the Kurds
historically, but you can't rearrange the status quo right away
on the local level. You can just try to talk to people honestly
and say, "The status quo isn't going to last forever; be patient."
I hope what's interesting about this film is that it'll point
up problems the Brits are going to face in Basra and the Americans
in several towns. The war was a tremendous overnight success,
but peace will be much more complicated.
In your previous FRONTLINE/World report, you said the war
would be fast and that Saddam would be rolled over like a paper
tiger. But you didn't talk about the postwar period. What have
you been surprised by?
Kiley butts heads with an American soldier over entry to a government building.
I expected the Americans to be greeted with more enthusiasm
than they were, especially by the Kurds. I grossly underestimated
what the betrayals of 1991 and 1995 meant internally.
So what do you think is going to happen now? More revenge?
What's difficult for Americans to understand is that people
don't necessarily always behave in a rational manner. The rational
thing to do upon being liberated from Saddam Hussein would have
been to celebrate and wait for democracy. But people respond
to liberation by trying to seize power. The idea that now there
will be a breathing period, and you should wait for elections,
and if you lose, you should wait five years and try again --
after the years of Saddam and Iraq's previous culture of coups,
a more natural response would be that you want your own group
to seize power, to get control so it can't be taken away from
Kurdistan was the closest thing to a functioning democracy
in the area, but it still had a civil war between different
Kurdish parties, there was still a healthy presence of gangster
politics, particularly in the KDP [Kurdistan Democratic Party]
areas. There isn't a multiparty democratic tradition in Iraq
-- you get elected and you shoot the opposition.
I was in Somalia prior to, during and immediately after the
United States intervened. It was much less frightening to be
in Iraq than in Somalia -- less crazy. Iraq was a functioning
state before the war. So the challenge for the Americans is
to prevent Iraq from turning into the first failed state created
by an intervention.
What do you think are the chances of success for the Americans?
Right now I have to say it's not looking good. They need a
hell of a lot more soldiers, and a lot more Green Beret soldiers
who are well versed in different cultures and trained to deal
with these kinds of situations.
On "The [Literal] Road to Kirkuk."
It's pretty hard for any foreigners to do this -- I don't
envy them. The real danger now is that as anarchy increases
on the ground, the American military will fall into force protection.
The step after force protection is withdrawal. And that will
be far more dangerous than the situation under Saddam. The Americans
don't want to be an occupying power, but if they abdicate and
get it wrong, we'll have dirty bombs all over the world, thank
you very much.
Nobody knows what this is. Is it a colonial adventure, an imperialist
adventure, a humanitarian adventure, a mission to destroy weapons
of mass destruction? The decent people in the Bush administration
-- and even some of the indecent ones -- want Iraq to be a shining
example of liberal democracy in the Middle East. Whether that's
a pipe dream or not the next few months will tell.
What's it like for you being in the middle of all this?
Are you really willing to die for your work as a journalist?
I'm 100 percent unwilling to die. I try to make rational decisions.
I've had about 18 lives, been shot, kidnapped and mock-executed.
If I'm being shot at, I think I'm an asshole for being there
-- if somebody wants to offer me a large amount of money to
do something as interesting with no risk, please let me know.
So far, my children don't really know about my work. My wife
hasn't known me in any other context. I hope as I get older
I get wiser, but you never know what can happen.
A Bedouin elder waits outside government offices to plead his evicted tribe's case for being allowed to return to their homes.
Can you tell me about your kidnapping and near-execution
after the war?
Let me quote from my own article. It's easier than going over
it again in my own mind. Thanks, here goes:
After two months in Iraq, we were just a few hours' drive
from sanity at the Jordanian border. Then we saw the car. We
were pulled over by a pair of Iraqi bandits who shoved their
AK-47s into our guts, screaming.
I had the team's money -- about $20,000 in cash -- hidden
in a money belt under my shirt. One of the younger bandits head-butted
me and whipped the belt away as I staggered back. Once they
had got the money, I hoped they would leave us. But two older,
grey-haired men presided over the robbery from the front seats
of their car. One twiddled a bayonet. The other rested his pistol
on his wing mirror, pointing at my crotch. Nick Hughes, our
cameraman, and I were forced into their car. Sayf, our driver,
and Qais, the translator, were joined by the young gunmen in
"What's it about? What's it about?" muttered Nick, until the
driver silenced him by slashing at me with the knife. We knew
what was going on. These men had already robbed us, and now
they were taking us out of sight. We knew they were going to
They drove us for about 20 minutes. At one point, Nick, a
martial arts expert, considered killing our kidnappers, but
to do so would have jeopardized the lives of our Iraqi colleagues
in the other car. So I settled for catching the eye of the driver
in his mirror and making the sign of an apology -- head bowed,
right palm on heart. I knew it was useless. I was a dead man
We were pulled out of the car and forced to our knees. At
some stage I was head-butted again, but I didn't feel a thing.
I was concentrating on saying good-bye to my son, my daughter
and my wife.
I breathed deeply and slowly through my nose. I found a sort
of blank space in my head. Not quite peace, but some kind of
calm. My head was forced into the dirt at my knees, and I felt
the cool barrel of a pistol at the base of my skull.
Then I let go of life. In my own mind, I was already dead.
Nick, who was on his knees in the dirt to my left, told me
later that he watched the leader of the gang walk up to me and
put his 9mm into the back of my head, almost casually. Nick
saw the gunman's trigger finger close and squeeze the lever
back. At that moment, Nick ran. He's got enormous feet, which
kicked sand up into my eyes as he lolloped by.
A gunman chased after Nick, firing wildly at about a five-yard
range. Bullets seemed to go between Nick's legs; others must
have been within microns of his ears. Just as suddenly as he
had run, Nick stopped, turned, shrugged and smiled apologetically.
It must have been the right thing to do. The gang bundled
us back into our car and told us to get lost. Perhaps they feared
they had given their position away to American patrols. I don't
You've faced your own death. If people you loved were killed,
can you imagine not taking revenge? If you, as the women you
filmed, had to face the people who'd tortured and murdered your
family, would you think reconciliation was possible?
An anfal survivor tells Kiley about the day her village was attacked, when she lost two of her seven children.
I can't imagine being a survivor of the Anfal and not wanting
to take revenge. The PUK [Patriotic Union of Kurdistan] takeover
of Kirkuk was the most successful takeover in any town in Iraq,
in terms of controlling looting and revenge attacks and chaos.
But still, at the moment, they want reconciliation on their
terms. The Kurds are trying to be mature, but it's not clear
how long it can pertain. Any incident can trigger a great conflagration.
Are you going back to Iraq?
Not right away. I'm off to Congo. That's a great untold story
-- it's not about Africans killing each other, as everyone thinks,
but about the interference of European powers, of organized
crime and the horrible effects of capitalism on a failed state.
You know, another upbeat, cheery story, the kind I like.
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