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




The Story
Reporter Sam Kiley points at bombs, Woman cries, Men in trusk

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In 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 toward Kirkuk.

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 for this."

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 any belongings.

"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 them.

"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 and Spanish."

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.


Sam Kiley

Filmed and Directed by
Nick Hughes

Gerry Gregg

John Moratiel
Steve Audette

Mike Ormiston

Executive Producer
David Henshaw

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