As President Bush continues to build the case for war and the U.N. Security Council prepares to send in weapons inspectors, FRONTLINE/World takes a harrowing journey inside Iraq. Reporter Sam Kiley sets out to investigate Saddam Hussein's weapons, the impact of sanctions on Iraqi civilians and rumors of public beheadings.
Truth, they say, is the first casualty of war. But Kiley laments that truth may already be a victim of an intense propaganda war between Washington, D.C., and Baghdad.
Kiley begins his mission to Iraq in Amman, Jordan, 500 miles from Iraq and home to thousands of Iraqi exiles. But he quickly discovers that Saddam's spies and assassins have a long reach Iraqi dissidents have been kidnapped and killed in Jordan and opponents of the Baghdad regime are afraid to speak. But finally, in a safe house, Kiley meets a former Iraqi schoolteacher from Basra, who tells him she fled the country after being forced to watch the public execution of 15 women. Another exile confides that these executions are carried out by Fedayeen Saddam ("Saddam's Redeemers"), a private army run by Saddam's eldest son, Uday, who is perhaps as feared and hated as his father inside Iraq.
Yet another exile, Hassan Jummaa, who once worked for Uday, describes how he was arbitrarily arrested, tortured and slashed with a razor. His wife, Rasha, provides more information about the reported beheadings, saying she witnessed men in the black uniforms of Uday's Fedayeen decapitate a young mother in a public square. The day after the couple spoke with Kiley, Jordanian police raid their home and they are evicted.
Driving across the desert into Baghdad, Kiley observes truck after truck carrying Iraqi oil to market a reminder of the source of Saddam's wealth and power.
Once inside Iraq, Kiley is closely monitored by a government "minder" and shepherded from place to place with other foreign correspondents. The Ministry of Information forbids Kiley to work with an independent Arab translator he brought from Jordan. But Kiley persists. He responds to Iraqi censorship with a mixture of aggression and humor.
On a government press trip to a phosphate mine at Akashat, Kiley is supposed to look for uranium oxide, or "yellow cake." Yellow cake can be enriched to make an atomic bomb. When the director of the Iraqi missile program denies to the journalists that the mine's processing plant is used for uranium extraction, Kiley asks him, "What does yellow cake look like? I wouldn't know yellow cake from marzipan."
At the Tuwaitha complex, a center of Saddam's efforts to develop a nuclear bomb, Kiley complains, "We're herded around like a school outing." When guards prevent him from videotaping and physically restrain him, Kiley snarls, "If you push me, I'll break your arm."
Government officials deny all the reported beheadings. "Because we are at war with America they launch propaganda against us," asserts Dr. Abdi Rizak al-Harabi of the Ministry of Religious Affairs. "These stories were all fabricated." When Kiley tries to question other officials, the Ministry of Information immediately cuts off his access. And upon return to his hotel room one night, he finds his door wide open. "A crystal clear message," Kiley muses. "'We're watching you.'"
Kiley and his producer decide to set up a motion-sensitive video camera in their room to record any intruders. Sure enough, the camera later captures a man dressed as a hotel porter rifling Kiley's bags and clothes.
The propaganda war is most fierce on the humanitarian front. "All journalists who visit Iraq end up being shown around a hospital sooner or later," observes Kiley. "I'm taken to the al-Wia Hospital in Baghdad." On a previous visit to Iraq in 1998, Kiley saw evidence that economic sanctions had led to the deaths of many innocent civilians. This time he asks doctors whether the U.N. OilforFood and medicine program has ameliorated the situation. He gets contradictory answers and is not allowed to inspect the hospital pharmacy. While some drugs remain scarce, Kiley finds private pharmacies to be well stocked and drugs to be inexpensive. He learns that the Iraqi government is suppressing a report that concludes there have been dramatic improvements in the country's health.
Continuing his investigation of the beheadings, Kiley finally finds a witness who confirms one of the reports he heard in Jordan of a woman being beheaded in front of a popular juice bar on the busiest nighttime shopping street in Baghdad. "A public execution here is like executing someone in Times Square," says Kiley. "It's the perfect terror tactic. The regime can deny it to the outside world, but everyone in Baghdad knows it happened."
The next day the government withdraws Kiley's visa and tells him to leave Iraq immediately. Shortly after, in a surprise move, Saddam empties his infamous prisons. But when some of the freed inmates begin describing the horrible conditions to CNN, The New York Times and other reporters and some relatives of missing prisoners organize a protest the Iraqi government announces it will expel all foreign press.
"The real truth about Saddam is that he wants his own people to know exactly what he's capable of," concludes Kiley. But at the same time Saddam wants the rest of the world to believe what Kiley calls "the Big Lie" that he is not repressing his own population and has no intention of developing weapons of mass destruction.