PBS Frontline/World: 'Saddam's Road to Hell'

Gwynne Roberts
Wednesday, January 25, 2006; 11:00 AM

Producer Gwynne Roberts was online Wednesday, Jan. 25, at 11 a.m. ET to discuss the PBS Frontline/World film "Saddam's Road to Hell," which follows the investigation into the alleged abduction and execution of 8,000 Kurds in the dictator's early years.

"Saddam's Road to Hell" follows a team of investigators led by the Kurdish minister for human rights, Dr. Mohammed Ihsan , who are trying to establish forensic proof of Saddam's guilt in the 1983 disappearance of Barzani Kurds following their decision to side with Iran against Iraq in the 1980s. Saddam's retribution against them has left many in this mountainous part of Iraq in mourning and without resolution about the fate of their loved ones. From a suicide bombing against Kurds waiting in line to join the police force that resulted in 70 fatalities to the discovery of three mass graves, the investigators' journey in today's Iraq is a compelling reminder of the dangers of Iraq then and now.

"Saddam's Road to Hell" airs Jan. 24, 2006 from 9 to 10 P.M. ET (check local listings).

The transcript follows.

Gwynne Roberts was the first western television journalist to interview Osama bin Laden in Afghanistan in November 1996. He was also the only documentary filmmaker to record the 1991 Gulf War as it happened in northern Iraq. He was then forced to flee to Turkey to escape the advancing Iraqi army. Roberts trekked across northern Iraq with Kurdish Pesh Merga in 1981 and 1985, during their guerrilla war against Saddam Hussein .


Arlington, Va.: When you were preparing to make this documentary, how did you find the investigators? Had you read about the situation or did you have contacts within Kurdish Iraq who told you about this? Did you have any trouble getting into Iraq to film this? Thank you for taking questions.

Gwynne Roberts: I've been involved in reporting Iraq for the past 30 years. So I am well contacted in the region. I was researching another documentary just after the 2003 war which entailed returning to the prison of Nugra Salman in the southern deserts with a former inmate. It was during this research phase that I heard of Dr Ihsan's investigation. There were no problems getting into Iraq - you can now fly directly to Erbil from Frankfurt. Traveling south is a bit more difficult, at least overland, and you need to be well protected. There are daily flights to the Iraqi capital from Erbil, but watch the road from the airport to the city centre - should you be planning a trip.


Washington, D.C.: What most surprised you during your adventure?

Gwynne Roberts: Traveling through the triangle of death south of Baghdad - it's just difficult to believe that Al Qaeda are so keen to kill travelers without mercy


Arlington, Va.: What sort of obstacles did you expect to face when you first joined the investigators? Were circumstances better or worse than you'd anticipated?

Gwynne Roberts: The situation was worse than expected - everyone, apart from the bodyguards and the human rights team, refused to travel with us. That included translators and our own cameraman. John Williams, my co-director, took over the camera work and did a brilliant job. [Added note follows, 3:45 p.m.]: John died of a heart attack in northern Iraq when we returned to Kurdistan in September to complete the film, one of three deaths that occurred during the making of the film.


Arlington, Va.: Based on your experiences working as a journalist in the Middle East, do you think Iraq is on the path to successfully rebuilding? How is the current relationship between the Kurds and the other groups in Iraq? Do you think the Kurds have some hope for the future of Iraq, and for their future in Iraq? Thank you.

Gwynne Roberts: I think it highly unlikely that Iraq will survive in its present state. Doing this film showed me that there is absolutely no trust between the Kurds and the Arab Sunni closely associated with Saddam's regime. In the absence of any truth and reconciliation process, the Kurds will find it impossible to live within a unitary state along these people. That is why there is such a huge movement towards independence in the north. That, of course, is contrary to the wishes of the US and British governments, and the states surrounding Kurdistan.


Crofton, Md.: Any updates since you finished making this film? Will the evidence be submitted at trial and if so, when?

Gwynne Roberts: The evidence collected during this investigation has been handed over to the court trying Saddam. The question is however whether the case of the missing Barzanis will ever be mentioned in at the trial. It is very possible that Saddam will be pronounced guilty and executed after the initial Dujail case. This, in my opinion, would be a travesty, however.


London, United Kingdom: Dear Gwynne Roberts, good greeting, I would like to congratulate you and Dr. Ihsan for your braveness and professionalism in producing this film. I am aware that Dr. Ihsan is one of the best Kurdish leaders who worked hard for his nation and promote human rights in Kurdistan. Thanks again.

Gwynne Roberts: Thank you very much. Your words are much appreciated.


Wauwatosa, Wis.: I felt that the story on Frontline World was nearly lacking in historical context, and that several interesting points were glossed over that I think are important. For instance, during the period in which the Brazanis were massacred, wasn't the U.S. supporting Saddam? Isn't it interesting that the government official featured in the story didn't have sufficient authority to simply seize the documents needed to build a case against Saddam, documents that had been looted as a direct result of the sloppiness of the early period of the occupation by American troops?

Gwynne Roberts: I beg to disagree with you. We really did try and I think succeed in establishing an historical context for the programme. There are many things that could have been added, of course, but we had 30 minutes to tell what was essentially a complicated story. We took a strategic decision not to get involved in the question of whether this invasion was justified or not. After all, the story of the missing Barzanis began 20 years before the invasion. It was also, I would point, a tragedy on the scale of Halabja which had gone virtually unreported. I personally believe that western support during the Iraq-Iraq War was a complete mistake. Western governments knew what was going on and were well aware of the Anfal campaign in which more than 100,000 Kurds died in 1987 and 1988. They did nothing about it. Had they moved to stop such dire human rights abuses, an invasion in 2003 would not have been necessary.


Washington, D.C.: After spending time there, what is your sense of the possibility/desire for a separate Kurdistan?

Gwynne Roberts: About 98 per cent of all Iraqi Kurds want a separate state. I think whatever happens politically there will a loose federation there which could perhaps be better described as a confederation. I think though the move towards independence in the foreseeable future is unstoppable.


Columbia, S.C.: How long do you think the trial of this demon will last and do you think he will be punished?

Gwynne Roberts: I have no doubt that Saddam will be punished. How long this will take is an open question. We see what a chaotic situation has arisen around the trial, and it becomes debatable whether it can continue in this vein for much longer. There is also the problem of whether the indictment will be dealt with in its entirety, and not just as one case. I think it would be unforgivable if just the Dujail case were heard and then sentence pronounced. The relatives of those who were executed under Saddam - and there could be as many as half a million - would be really unhappy with that outcome.


Albany, N.Y.: This is not entirely related to the topic, but it is somewhat. Under Iraqi law under Saddam, a person over the age of 70 could not be executed. Saddam is now 69, and the trial seems to be going slowly, what with judges resigning and lawyers being killed. Do you know if this law is still considered valid? If so, things could get very interesting.

Gwynne Roberts: Indeed. To be honest, I was not aware that such a law existed.


Fairbanks, Alaska: In reference to an earlier question, a travesty because he would be executed, or a travesty because the information concerning the numbers of victims he has left in his wake would be minimized or left out from the worlds perceptions?

Gwynne Roberts: I think it important that the world is made aware of what Saddam was up to, and of their own governments' support for such a cruel tyrant. But more importantly, the relatives of the missing have a right and a deep need to see justice being done.


Chicago, Ill.: Did you get a sense of how Iraqis feel about the U.S. invasion? Is there more support in the north in general?

Gwynne Roberts: The Kurds are very supportive of the American forces and are grateful to them for removing Saddam.


Alexandria, Va.: Are you working on your next film? Can you tell us what it is about?

Gwynne Roberts: I am exhausted and need time to reflect. There are one or two Iraq ideas being mentioned by broadcasters in the UK which involve key Iraq issues. But I'm getting increasingly worried by the worsening security situation. You can't go on indefinitely tempting fate. Apart from that, doing such difficult and dangerous subjects means you have to keep your cards close to your chest!


Fairbanks, Alaska: Unforgivable because the atrocities need to be aired? The entirety of Saddam's crimes paraded for the world to see?

Gwynne Roberts: These atrocities need to be aired. It's important to help stop these situations developing again. There are governments out there which drew economic advantage from letting Saddam flourish. I think those which supported him with arms - for example the chemical weapon precursors used against hundreds of Kurdish villages, including Halabja, - should be named and shamed. If the trial is allowed to go on, this issue will arise. Did you know for example that the UN reached an agreement with Saddam in 1993 not to reveal the names of western companies which had supplied the regime with these materials? When atrocities become known, governments should be honour bound to act and stop them - or am I being terribly naive?


Iraq vs. war on terror: While intelligence has shown there was no direct relationship between Saddam and the greater war on terror when Bush ordered our attack on Iraq, now the region seems to have become more of a factor in the war on terror. How integral (or not) is Iraq to the emergence of new terrorists?

Gwynne Roberts: I am not sure that your basic surmise is correct. It is not a foregone conclusion that there were no contact between Saddam and Al Quaeda groups. In the late 1990s, I began to hear various stories of Islamic fighters being trained in camps south of Baghdad. I also met the former head of Iraqi military intelligence recently who claimed that fundamentalists were being trained in Iraq. There is no absolutely cast iron proof that this was so, however. I know that the CIA and MI6 maintained there was no connection between a secular Iraq and the Islamicists, but there was perceptible drift in Iraq during the 1990s toward a more Islamic-centred state. So for me the case is not as yet proven.


Arlington, Va.: What was your 1996 interview with bin Laden like? Would you have ever expected him capable of something like 9/11 at that point?

Gwynne Roberts: No. I talked to his lieutenants in Afghanistan, however, and they talked of a world war by 2006 which would extend from China to the West. I thought it was hyperbole at the time.


Morristown, N.J.: Will Saddam's execution actually change things?

Gwynne Roberts: Difficult to say. I personally think it may be decades before Iraq returns to normality. But I think it important for Iraqis to realise that justice will be done. Whether this particular court can deliver on that is another matter.


Munich, Germany: I have read that the Kurds are unappreciated and even looked down upon by the Arabs and other cultures in the Middle East.
Is there an historical precedent for this? Were the Kurds the slave class to the Arabs in ancient times or something similar?

Gwynne Roberts: It's an interesting question. When I was covering the Anfal - the near genocidal action by Saddam against the Kurds - it became clear that no single Arab state had mentioned anything about the destruction of 4, 000 villages, the death of more than 100,000 men, women and children nor the use of poison gas against civilians. Quite an omission don't you think. Hopefully, things will now change. If you look back in time, one of the most famous Islamic leaders against the crusades was Kurdish. His name was Salahadhin


Richmond, Va.: It's difficult to defend Saddam, but I wonder if you are familiar with the following memo from Jude Wanniski to Jesse Helms in 1998:


...I have come across the 1990 Pentagon report...Its authors are Stephen C. Pelletiere, Douglas V. Johnson II, and Leif R. Rosenberger, of the Strategic Studies Institute of the U.S. War College at Carlisle, Pennsylvania.

...As soon as the war with Iran ended, Iraq announced its determination to crush the Kurdish insurrection...in the course of this operation -- according to the U.S. State Department -- gas was used, with the result that numerous Kurdish civilians were killed...

Having looked at all of the evidence that was available to us, we find it impossible to confirm the State Department's claim...To begin with there were never any victims produced...-none were ever] found inside Iraq. The claim rests solely on testimony of the Kurds...

In March 1988, the Kurds at Halabjah were bombarded with chemical weapons, producing a great many deaths...it was subsequently brought out that Iran too had used chemicals in this operation...it seemed likely that it was the Iranian bombardment that had actually killed the Kurds...


Gwynne Roberts: I am well aware of the Stephen Pelletiere report which I have to say I found simply wrong. I questioned hundreds of Halabjans (who had survived the attack) about who was responsible for gassing them and, everyone blamed Iraq. I talked to Kurdish commanders who were involved with the Iranians and who, when I talked to them in 1998, were hostile to Teheran. They also said Iraq was to blame. I also recollect Tariq Aziz admitting that they had attacked Halabja with gas.


Richmond, Va.: "In the late 1990s, I began to hear various stories of Islamic fighters being trained in camps south of Baghdad. I also met the former head of Iraqi military intelligence recently who claimed that fundamentalists were being trained in Iraq."

Did the former head of Iraqi intelligence claim that these people were being trained to act against us? They might have been being trained to act in Palestine, maybe. If true, how does that relate to 9/11, and why would it even a matter of concern to us?

Gwynne Roberts: It's quite possible that they were being trained for action against the Israelis, and not the US, and there was no link mentioned between their training and 9/11. However, I mentioned specifically Al Quaeda in my discussion with the former military intelligence chief and he did say they were involved. These Islamicists were apparently being trained by a group known as 999. I think if any group is being trained in a country like Iraq in how to use explosives and chemical weapons (even if they are simulated) then that should be of concern to all of us. A trainer I talked to who had worked at one of these camps told me that the Iraqis had been training trainers - ie Islamicsts who would go out to other camps in Somalia to spread the knowledge. How accurate this claim was I have no way of judging.


Washington, D.C.: What's next on your list of places you'd like to see/visit?

Gwynne Roberts: USA


Washington, D.C.: It is hard to imagine how long these families have had to wait for answers. Did the discovery of the mass graves give conclusive answers through DNA evidence? Are there many still classified as "missing"?

Gwynne Roberts: The DNA tests are being done. As many as 100,000 are still classified as missing.


New York, N.Y.: Mr. Roberts, in February of 2001, an article appeared in the London Times stating: "On a visit to northern Iraq, Gwynne Roberts stumbled on a trail of compelling evidence that the 'Butcher of Baghdad' has successfully tested a nuclear bomb." How in the world did Frontline authorize you to make a documentary about Iraq given your Judith Miller type past?

Gwynne Roberts: This film is about a massive human rights abuse, not WMD. In the past, I have reported on evidence presented to me by Iraqi scientists who claimed that Iraq had prepared for nuclear testing. Satellite analysis and expert opinion seemed to support this claim. I think you are confusing their message with myself as the messenger, a distinction in journalism which is worth making. I have been reporting from Iraq for nearly 30 years and the situation is much more complex than glib journalistic reports suggest. I do care passionately about human rights abuse in Iraq whoever is responsible - be they Iraqis or Coalition.


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