Frontline/World: 'Truth and Lies in Baghdad'
With Sam Kiley
Friday, Nov. 8, 2002; 11 a.m. ET
As the Bush administration attempts to build public support for military action against Saddam Hussein, questions remain and arguments rage over just how big a danger Iraq poses to the U.S. and its neighbors, and how accurate the stories are about Saddam Hussein's regime.
On FRONTLINE/World's "Truth and Lies in Baghdad," airing Thursday, Nov. 7, at 9 p.m. ET on PBS (check local listings), reporter Sam Kiley faces government intimidation and censorship as he investigates charges of brutal repression. Kiley was online Friday, Nov. 8.
The transcript follows.
Editor's Note: Washingtonpost.com moderators retain editorial control over Live Online discussions and choose the most relevant questions for guests and hosts; guests and hosts can decline to answer questions.
Pearl, Miss.: Sam:
Nice work on that story. Given what you have seen firsthand in Iraq, do you think (personally) that the average Iraqi citizen will be pre-disposed to the United States forcing a change of regime? Do you think that they (citizens) will readily "rise up" against Saddam and his sons? Thanks for literally sticking your neck out to do this story.
Sam Kiley: I don't think that the Iraqi people will rise up till they see Apaches on the horizon. They've been let down massively in the past by America, notably in 1991 when Bush, Sr. called for an Intifada, and then the same guy allowed Saddam to fly his helicopters against him and tens of thousands were slaughtered. Again in the mid-90s, the Kurds and Iraqi generals were encouraged by the CIA to organize a coup and the Americans pulled the plug on that, literally in the last hour and more people died.
Mt. Lebanon, Pa.: At the end of the program the audience is still left in the air: did the beheadings really occur or was it all just fertile imaginations running wild from people who actually saw nothing. Even in the West it's hard to verify the veracity of eye witness accounts; we just did that drill in one of the Virginia sniper shootings. Unless records are ultimately found or corroborated, extensive accounts from believable witnesses are documented, the story behind your program will have to be left to idle conjecture. Still, the program was a good accounting of the handling of reporters by government baby sitters. Good work. Thanks much.
Sam Kiley: You are quite right to observe or imply that in the west one can say anything one likes about Hussein and get away with it. What we endeavored to do was check one allegation. I am convinced the beheadings happened, I agree that eye witnesses are not entirely reliable and occasionally may have their own agendas to push. Nonetheless, we interviewed a lot of people that didn't make it into the film and an awful lot of cross checking goes in. At the end of the day, we didn't see a beheading or find a body and its difficult to have a murder without a corpse and that is why it is so frightening for the Iraqis. They hear about these things, but no one sees it.
Fairfax, Va.: Hi. I lived in Baghdad in the late 1980s. It was a remarkably brutal society. I remember going downtown and seeing bodies hanging from poles (army deserters, supposedly). The muhabbarat occasionally came into our house when we were away, and would vandalize it just to let us know they could enter at will. Our house was regularly shot up at night. WE were shot at several times (for "suspicious driving"). Our dog was killed, its head left on our doorstep and its body thrown on another American's yard. Rumors were rife about Saddam's and Uday's perversions and murders. I don't doubt for a minute that if and when Saddam gets nuclear weapons he will use them on Israel and that he'll use them on us if he can.
Sam Kiley: THis correspondent has clearly had first-hand experience with the Iraqi regime, so I defer to your greater knowledge. On the question of whether he would use a nuclear weapon if he had it, I think it is open to question and I'm sure that this correspondent remembers that in the period when dead pets were dumped on their doorstep, Saddam was the West's favorite middle eastern leader because it was the IRanians who were perceived as a threat. The Americans and Brits have shown themselves incapable of intelligent Middle Eastern foreign policy and it'll be interesting to see when and if they get rid of Saddam, how the region plays out.
Skillman, N.J.: Do you see any overt preparation in Iraq for a possible war? Do the people you talked to seem scared of war? How did you get the footage of that horrendous dog-eating ritual?
Sam Kiley: Iraq is what an even Henry Boot would have described as "unwarwise." There were not much visible preparations in Baghdad, but a lot of boasting about how they would fight the Americans on the street and nonetheless there has been a lot of concentration of armor and equipment around other towns and in particular, around Tikrit, where Saddam is from -- where I saw a lot of anti-aircraft missiles. They might be made of cardboard for all I know.
As for the dog footage, it was originally recorded off Iraqi television. This was broadcast as a boast and we obtained it, no one had ever broadcast it -- it hadn't been seen before and we found it in a dusty archive.
Fairfax, Va.: Do you know what happened to Saddam's first wife, his daughters and their children? Are they still alive and free, or were they killed or imprisoned after Saddam had his sons-in-law killed?
Sam Kiley: Gosh, off the top of my head, I honestly can't remember what happened to his first wife. I think she's still alive. In general, there were a total of I believe 70 members of his sons-in-laws families who were killed after they defected and returned back. Saddam's daughters are alive. No one really sees much of Saddam's family. I wouldn't want to speculate.
Texas: I recall seeing the film where a woman was publicly executed in Iraq for murdering her husband. Other than the fact the execution was held in a stadium, and thus is more disturbing to witness, how does this differ from executing a woman for murder in Texas?
Sam Kiley: Well, I am not aware of the public execution in Iraq, it sounds more like something that would happen in Saudi Arabia. Do I or do I not support capital punishment. My view is that I have never seen any convincing argument in capital punishment, beyond the natural human desire for revenge. And I'm also quite sure that if you had public executions they would fill the rose bowl over and over.
California: I watched the last 30 minutes of your show, and I gotta tell you, I cried after you said your closing statement. I lived in Iraq for 18 years so I know exactly what you were talking about. I loved your report. I've seen many and read many, but yours is superb. I'm only 20 years old, but I've seen more than a 40-year-old would ever see. I'd like to chat with you tomorrow, I'm gonna try to make it.
Sam Kiley: I'm delighted that the film rang true, that after all this what we're trying to achieve. And if we succeeded in getting across the state of terror that ordinary Iraqis live under, then I think in the long term we'll have done something in a very small way to alleviate the suffering that they've been enduring after the last 10 years under sanctions.
Sidney, British Columbia, Canada: At the Tuwaitha complex, where you were, though apparently misleadingly, told that you could look around as you please, you apparently took a look down a hallway and were able to see both experiments being performed and people that you could not talk to. At one point in the show, you made note of a bunsen burner being used to perform some sort of experiment, before being rudely pushed away from the spectacle. I would like to ask if you were able to see anything else of interest in that, or other, room of the complex that would at all suggest any sort of the nuclear research and development activity that the Iraqi government was trying prove does not exist.
On another separate note, I am interested in knowing the level of involvement that your assigned "monitor" had in your explorations. Was this person specifically assigned to you, so that you couldn't even leave your hotel room without him being at your hip, or was there some level of leeway, where you would only be interrupted if you were to go somewhere or film something that was for some reason or other restricted?
Sam Kiley: To the first question, the incident was what they claimed was a pharmaceutical plant. They clearly didn't want me poking around what people were doing, though they could've marched me through an anthrax plant and I'd have been none the wiser. I don't know much about this, but I don't think it was nuclear work. I think it was almost certainly some kind of biological or chemical experiment. Or it could have been reflex authoritarianism on the part of junior people, who for their own safety would err on the side of safety.
You can't work at all in Iraq without a monitor. They are called guides and do translation. some work for military intelligence and some are just civil servants. They have to report back on what we've been doing to their superiors. They try to behave with charm. But their job is to make sure that the Iraqi version of events is the only one that is seen, while appearing not to be involved in censorship. News organizations know they won't get back into the country if they ignore the regime and that the minder will pay for it. So were careful to show him doing his job.
Wausau, Wisc.: I unfortunately missed the first half of your report last night. Was there any information as to whether the women who were beheaded for prostitution actually were prostitutes, or had they merely committed some other infraction? The Saudis, for instance, might charge a unmarried woman who is having lunch with a man with prostitution. In other words, how strictly does Islamic law regulate women's behavior in Iraq?
Sam Kiley: Interestingly, prostitution -- islamic law is not applied in Iraq, and the worst punishment is a jail term, not death. So the allegation was used an an excuse as was the conducting of this under the umbrella of Islam.
Pearl, Ms.: Sam:
Were you able to see how much access the 'average' Iraqi has to world-wide multi-media, specifically satellite and internet media? If so, what kind of reaction, if any do they seem to have concerning the popular culture and morals of the West, in particular, the U.S. and the U.K.
Sam Kiley: They have no access to any kind of international news, other than over the radio. They do have access, through satellite, to western movies. The most popular radio program is owned by Uday, and plays non-stop pop music with English speaking DJs. In general, the urban Iraqis are a much more western looking than I've encountered any where else in the Western world.
There's internet access -- and government controlled Internet cafes -- but there are a lot of Web sites that are blocked and all non-Iraqi e-mails (like hotmail or AOL) you can't get into them.
Atlanta, Ga.: How are the Iraqi people suffering from sanctions? The only suffering I saw in your report stems directly from the actions of its government. No one appears to be starving or without medical care in the report.
Sam Kiley: There has been, since the food program came in 1998, there's been a massive increase in the well-being of the Iraqi people. From an atrocious low, the sanctions were killing Iraqis up until 1998. There have been massive improvements, and the government is sitting on its statistics which show more improvements. Iraqis remain rather poor, and in a material sense and the schools are lacking in equipment, but it would be true to say, however, that the real suffering is the anguish of living under a dictatorship and in a state of fear.
Berkley, Mich.: Thank you for the great, thought-provoking report. More than ever, the world needs journalism which attempts to go beyond propaganda so that viewers world-wide can make informed decisions.
1. Based on your investigation, do you think a war that risks civilian casualties is required for a regime change in Iraq?
2. If you could advise President Bush, what guidance would you provide?
Sam Kiley: My hunch is that a war in Iraq will be over very quickly with few civilian casualties. Merely because the IRaqi army is half the size it was before. I saw a special forces demonstration in which about four of five bullets didn't fire. And nobody's going to lay down their life for Saddam. But there will be heavy aerial bombardment by America and I pray that they're more accurate than they are in Afghanistan.
With the greatest respect, I would suggest that America has a very long way to go in convincing the Arab world of the justice of its causes in the Middle East. In the view of many here and in Europe -- and many in America -- the Bush administration has got far too far into bed with Sharon and made no effort to try and get a breakthrough on the Israeli Palestinian issue. There is a hope that if Iraq is sorted out, the Americans will refocus and drive Israel and Palestinian heads together to solve this international conundrum on the planet.
Manhattan, Kan.: Do you think you have access to a VISA to Iraq anytime soon? I am sure you would love the chance to investigate more in depth on the beheadings. I didn't know if a follow-up report was in the minds of you and your company or purely out of the question.
Sam Kiley: I won't be able to get back into Saddam's Iraq while he's still in power. So, no follow up till he's gone.
Washington, D.C.: Does Iraq have a right to defend its oilfields from seizure by a government that's backed by a coalition of large oil and defense interests? I keep thinking back to the 1990 meeting that occurred just before the invasion of Kuwait where it has been alleged that the US Ambassador to Iraq signalled a green light to the Kuwait invasion. Even if Saddam turns out to be the only despot we ever do anything about, don't we still have a right to consider the larger profit motive(s) involved?
Sam Kiley: Well, the correspondent has put his finger on what this war is about. There is no question that this is every bit about oil as it is about WMD -- probably more so in my view. It certainly has nothing to do with Western concerns with the plight of the Iraqi people. And, if you look -- I'm not an expert on the oil industry, but its my understanding that Karzai used to work for a major American oil company. I rest my case.
Dayton, Ohio: Mr. Kiley,
Interesting half hour. Maybe a bit too focused on the alleged beheadings at this time when there is so much for us to learn about Iraq. For instance:
Why did the scene of the infants/toddlers in the hospital awaken more questions? Why would their mothers use impure water to mix infant formula? Is there a particular reason infant formula was used, when apparently safe water wasn't available? And if I recall correctly, you off-handedly stated that these children don't look ill-fed without asking any of the doctors on this subject. Is that good enough?
Sam Kiley: Well, we weren't making a film about he effects of sanctions, which has been done to death. I am not a medical doctor, but have covered every major humanitarian disaster for the past 12 years and know what a malnourished child looks like. I didn't ask doctors because -- the women were all rural bedouin who don't fully understand the need to take care about hygiene when feeding children. They are also given as part of their monthly rations, milk formula. UNICEF is trying to discourage the use of it, but because its western and modern it tends to make children sick.
Quite right, there is an awful lot to learn about Iraq for all of us. We picked the beheadings because it intrigued me as something to investigate as a mechanism of terror. When I was in Sierra Leone there was an evil magic about the rebels' habit of chopping peoples hands off, you were crippling them, but condemning them to death by starvation. IT was a brilliant method of terror.
SImilarly, the beheadings -- the fact that they happened but were officially denied meant that they became mythological -- and you need a level of mythology to have effective internal repression and I probably should have brought that out more in the film.
Datona, Fla.: Why don't reports like this show up at the UN and discussed over and over? It seems the world is oblivious to everything that is going on, and that the USA and Britain are just warmongering an "innocent" country. Also, does PBS plan on re-airing this a lot, I think it is something the general public should see more of. People need to be informed on these issues.
Sam Kiley: Very kind comment. They also ought to be informed on the effects of the oil lobby. There is a frightening level of ignorance and lack of understanding about pretty well every aspect of the middle east in the west. I hope that Britons and Americans in particular would take the trouble to learn that its a very complex place and not one where the only solution are military. And they will only do that when they stop watching redneck television like Geraldo.
Washington, D.C.: Will the Iraqi people accept a new leader? With a new leader being installed, who will mainly lose out?
Sam Kiley: The immediate losers will be the people who are closest to Saddam and have invested so much in maintaining his regime -- which means the extended clan around Tikrit. I fear there could be widespread revenge killings against Ba'ath party people and police agents in return for 30 years of oppression in the 30 years they have been servants of Saddam's policies.
Would they accept a different leader? If it were at all possible to have free and fair elections, I think you would find that they did. Any leader that comes after Saddam will be tainted as being viewed as working for a foreign power. Which is why interesting stuff will start on day one of a new regime.
Detroit, Mich.: After seeing your report, I am convinced that the Iraqi people need a change in leadership. However, invasion by the U.S. could cause a bigger backlash of Islamic extremism, resulting in more misery for the Iraqi's and an increase in international terrorism. My question to you is, what otherway can we help with the plight of the Iraqi's, and diminish the threat that their government poses for the region.
Sam Kiley: Well, I agree that foreign military intervention in the middle east with no solution in Israel and with Palestinians is incendiary. What help we could give the Iraqi people -- I quite honestly can't think of anything we could do. It doesn't mean we shouldn't be trying, but I can't think of a way of alleviating their plight without getting rid of Saddam, and I don't see any way of getting rid of Saddam short of military intervention.
If he died of old age, I think the Ba'ath party would swing into action and marginalize his sons.
Detroit, Mich.: Didn't you feel like you were endangering the people who you spoke with? How do you justify the fact that the people you have interviewed may now be dead. You ask questions, the answers to which you know will get them into trouble with the regime so where do you draw the line morally as a journalist? I am thinking in particular about the family in Amman who was evicted after their interview and the poor family in Basra who admitted to seeing the beheadings. They may be dead for saying what they said. That being said, it was an excellent report. Thank you.
Sam Kiley: This was the principal and overriding concern we had while making the film. I know for a fact that the family in Amman are fine and we helped to re-house them and are hoping to get out of Amman into the West. In the family in Basra, the questions we asked were part of long interviews about a wide range of subjects and they were -- in confirming that the executions had occurred -- were not going to face serious consequences. I had a list of names and addresses of victims which I could have used to go to their homes to see if they matched up. That would seriously have endangered those people and indeed our minder, and that's why we didn't do it.
So I am extremely aware of the danger that my work can pose for people and would not countenance doing any kind of story if I thought any one was going to suffer. For example, the eyewitness that we end the film with -- it didn't occur to him to hide his identity. We did that for him.
Washington, D.C.: Wow, amazing timing... the UN Security Council just approved a resolution forcing Iraq to disarm. I just wonder what you think about the necessity of disarming Iraq at this particular point in time. Why after 16 resolutions are ignored do we suddenly have to do something about it? At least the UN is behind this now and the U.S. won't be acting alone, but still I think the average American citizen feels like this push to disarm Iraq came very suddenly... it's not clear why they're more of a threat to us today than they were a year ago. What are your thoughts on this?
Sam Kiley: Its not clear to me either. Its got a lot to do with a change in administration. I suspect, and this is my personal pet theory, that at the back of some minds is the concern that the Saudi regime is vulnerable and that it would be replaced by Islamic fundamentalists who practice what they preach. And there's no way anyone can invade Saudi Arabia. That's my theory. To explain why now? WHy is Saddam Hussein suddenly, 11 years on, more of a threat than he was two years ago and I've not been particularly impressed with the technical intelligence that is being used to justify this policy.
I think its a dreadful regime and would be delighted if it were changed, but there are an awful lot of dreadful regimes.
Everyone must ring their local PBS television station and demand to see it again.
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