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February 2003, FRONTLINE/World correspondent Sam Kiley
went to Iraq to cover a war that everyone knew was coming. He
was reporting from the northern front, an area controlled by
the Kurds since the first Gulf War. In the weeks Kiley spent
in Kurdistan, he would discover a land and a people haunted
by Saddam Hussein.
In the late 1980s, Saddam's regime began a campaign of ethnic
cleansing and extermination against the Kurds called anfal,
or "the spoils of war." The spoils Saddam was after were the
oil fields near the Kurdish-controlled city of Kirkuk.
Saddam used chemical weapons to drive out the Kurds, attacking
upwards of 50 villages, killing thousands. Now, 15 years later,
Sam Kiley comes across a survivor of a chemical attack, a blind
woman named Khadija. She lost her vision and four members of
her family -- all in one day.
Chemical attacks were only one arm of the anfal campaign.
Kurds also were simply rounded up; those who were not executed
just disappeared. During a six-month period in 1988, this happened
to more than 120,000 Kurdish men, women and children.
In a refugee camp close to the front line, Kiley meets Nabath,
another victim of ethnic cleansing. The day that Saddam's anfal
campaign hit and destroyed her village near Kirkuk, Iraqi soldiers
beat and raped the women. Nabath's 3-year-old son was killed,
and her 6-year-old daughter was stolen. "My daughter was gorgeous,"
Nabath says. "Maybe they kept her for themselves."
As the war draws near, Kiley moves
yet closer to the front and links up with a group of Kurdish
peshmerga fighters, part of the PUK, the Patriotic Union
of Kurdistan. The men are itching for battle, dreaming of their
return to Kirkuk. Saddam has resettled their city with Arabs
from southern Iraq who have taken over their homes, and the
peshmerga want the city back. They believe that if they
can capture Kirkuk and its vital oil fields, they can fulfill
their ancient dream of an independent Kurdish nation.
In early April, three weeks into the U.S.-led war, the assault
on Kirkuk finally begins. The peshmerga, guided by U.S.
Special Forces and supported by American air power, lead the
charge. And even though Baghdad has already fallen and Iraqi
resistance in the north is crumbling, Kiley and the troops encounter
combat. They barely escape an Iraqi
ambush, then get a particularly bad scare when one retaliatory
American bomb misses its target and hits a spot only 100 yards
behind them. Undaunted, everyone picks up the pace and charges
The city falls quickly, and the Kurds, who account for 45
percent of the population, welcome the Americans and the peshmerga.
During the first 24 hours of liberation, Kirkuk is in chaos
as Kurds vent their outrage over the atrocities committed against
them by Saddam's regime. Meanwhile Arabs and the Turkish-speaking
Turkoman minority are keeping a low profile.
Kiley seeks out the former headquarters of the secret police,
where he finds dozens of former Kurdish prisoners, anxious to
demonstrate how they were tortured. One man tells of months
of electric shocks, another shows Kiley the alarmingly meticulous
record-keeping of thefts, tortures and executions.
Following up on reports that Arabs are being forced out of
their homes, Kiley heads out to Divas, a middle-class neighborhood
built by Saddam for his military elite. He finds many houses
abandoned by their officer owners and marked in paint by one
Kurdish group or another, laying claim to them.
One Arab owner who is standing his ground expresses outrage
to Kiley. He says the PUK has ordered him to be out of his home
within 24 hours or he'll be shot, and he has no idea why. When
asked about ownership of the land, the man replies, "It's not
their land, it's our land -- their land and our land. We are
treating Kurds as brothers. And this house is mine. I paid
Another area on the outskirts of Kirkuk is home to Bedouins,
who, like the Kurds, are a stateless people. In 1991, they were
given citizenship in Iraq then sent to the north, where Saddam,
trying to use them as a buffer against the Kurds, gave them
free homes and free land with newly irrigated fields.
Kiley meets Marzouka, a Bedouin woman whose family of 20 has
been forced out of their homes. She says that Kurdish soldiers
arrived with rifles and made them leave immediately, without
"The peshmerga fighters who liberated Kirkuk had promised
there would be no revenge for the anfal, only justice," Kiley
observes. "But here, away from the city center, women and children
are now caught up in what looks like ethnic cleansing in reverse."
Kiley goes with Bedouin elders to seek help, and eventually
they get a piece of paper guaranteeing that they can stay in
their village. Thousands of Arabs are also asking the Americans
for help, but in a city of half a million, there are only about
50 Green Berets on the ground.
This conflict over housing in Kirkuk is huge. On another day,
Kiley encounters two women, one Arab and one Kurdish, having
a face-off in front of an apartment building. Both women claim
to have lived in the same apartment for years. When a crowd
of neighbors gathers to watch the dispute, a U.S. captain addresses
"We have to find a peaceful solution," he tells the people.
"It's going to take time, OK? Do it peacefully, not by force.
We're going to have Arabs living with Kurds and Turkoman. They
will live together -- like in America, you have blacks, whites
The Turkoman, or ethnic Turks are yet another player in this
complicated game of ethnic tug-of-war. They make up a quarter
of the population of Kirkuk and fear Kurdish domination. Kiley
visits the Turkoman party headquarters, recently set up in a
house confiscated from an Iraqi officer. There is great turmoil
at the house, which is also being claimed by the peshmerga.
Yesterday, a Turkoman leader tells Kiley, Kurds fired
on a taxi just outside the building. Now an 8-year-old boy is
dead. The men take Kiley to see the child's remains.
"So here we have a group of grown men proudly showing off
the brains of an 8-year-old child," Kiley observes. "Pathetic
scenes like this are exactly the sort of thing that can ignite
the bomb that Kirkuk is, the ethnic bomb."
Before leaving Iraq, Kiley travels to a village outside Kirkuk, the home of Nabath,
the Kurdish woman whose daughter was stolen by the Iraqis. Kiley
has promised to try to help her find the girl.
But what they find leaves both Kiley and Nabath with little
hope. Deep in fertile hills, 90 families once lived in a thriving
community rich in livestock, orchards and vineyards. Under Saddam,
it was literally wiped off the map. Houses are destroyed, people
missing or killed.
Kiley asks Nabath if she thinks she could live alongside Arab
people now. "With Arab people? No, never," she replies. "They
might not [all] be responsible, but my heart would not allow
it. It is better to live with our own people."
The U.S.-led war has been a success, but, as
Kiley notes, it turns out that winning the war was the easy
part. Liberating the country from Saddam's brutal legacy of
ethnic hatred is something else. It's a daunting task -- Saddam
always claimed that his iron fist and "ethnic cleansing" were the only ways to hold the country
together -- and now the task belongs to the Bush administration,
which is betting, against history, that it can find a way to
heal this fractured land.
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