Frontline World

IRAQ: The Road to Kirkuk, May 2003

Related Features THE STORY
Synopsis of "The Road to Kirkuk"

History without a homeland

The costs of war

Government, population, Iraqi Kurds

Kurds, nationalism, Iraq after Saddam




Interview With Sam Kiley: The Costs of War
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.

Outside Kirkuk, Kiley points to an explosion caused by an American bomb.

Outside Kirkuk, Kiley points to an explosion caused by an American bomb.
How did you get into Kurdistan?

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.

Kiley introduces himself to a Bedouin man.

Kiley introduces himself to a Bedouin man in the temporary settlement where the man's tribe is living after being evicted from their homes.
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?

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 help.

A U.S. Special Forces captain mediates between two women.

Kiley watches a U.S. Special Forces captain mediate between two women, one Kurdish and one Iraqi, over ownership of a house in Kirkuk.
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?

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.

Kiley butts heads with an American soldier over entry to a government building.

Kiley butts heads with an American soldier over entry to a government building.
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?

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 you.

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?

On the [Literal] Road to Kirkuk.

On "The [Literal] Road to Kirkuk."
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.

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?

A Bedouin elder waits outside government offices.

A Bedouin elder waits outside government offices to plead his evicted tribe's case for being allowed to return to their homes.
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.

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 the jeep.

"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 kill us.

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 walking.

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 know.

An anfal survivor talks to Kiley.

An anfal survivor tells Kiley about the day her village was attacked, when she lost two of her seven children.
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?

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.

back to top