May 6, 2002
Kevin McKiernan, right,
with Kurdish army commander Wageah Barzani.
Local journalist bears witness
Santa Barbaran journeys to northern Iraq where Kurds are
living in the shadow of Saddam Hussein
By RHONDA PARKS MANVILLE
NEWS PRESS STAFF WRITER
Santa Barbara-based war correspondent Kevin McKiernan is headed back to northern Iraq on Tuesday to conduct interviews and shoot footage for a
documentary on the threat of chemical and biological warfare posed by Iraqi strongman Saddam Hussein.
This is a story Mr. McKiernan has explored before.
He made a treacherous trip to the region in March, crossing
the narrow Tigris River from Syria into Iraq, within sight of Saddam Hussein's
troops and tanks. A few weeks after he returned home to Santa Barbara, he learned
that his five bodyguards were murdered by Islamic extremists during anambush
on Kurdish prime minister Barham Salih.
Mr. McKiernan has documented violence and unrest all over the
world-from Nicaragua to Turkey. But he doesn't seem to be hardened by it. The
walls in his crowded office at the Granada Building are covered with poignant
photographs of people he interviewed during war. He is drawn to people who would
be considered underdogs.
The Iraqi Kurds certainly fall into that category. He refers
to them as the largest group of ethnic people in the world without a homeland.
When Mr. McKiernan comes across the pictures he took of
the Kurdish bodyguards who befriended and protected
him in Iraq, he has to pause for a moment. He'll visit their families, and bring
them these photographs, he says.
During his most recent trip for ABC News, Mr. McKiernan interviewed
Iraqi Kurds about their willingness to support the United
|A Kurdish shepherd tends his flock in northern Iraq near the
|One of Kevin McKiernan's bodyguards climbs over debris in Halabja,
where more than 5,000 Kurds died in a 1988 chemical attack by Saddam
States if it attempts
to overthrow the Iraqi dictator. The Bush Administration has said it wants
Kurdish forces to participate, just as Northern Alliance
forces did in
Some Kurdish people are wary of such a plan for many reasons,
according to Kurds interviewed by Mr. McKiernan, who has made more than a dozen
trips to the region since 1991.
He's written extensively about the Kurds for Time and Newsweek magazines, and
the The New York Times and the LA Times, and has produced live reports for
the networks. He also made an award-winning documentary for PBS called "Good Kurds, Bad Kurds" which
outlines inconsistencies in U.S. foreign policy and the disastrous effect.
"The Kurds are looking at this proposal through lens of betrayal," he
said. The Kurds rose up against Baghdad at the request of the United States-expecting
they would get U.S. support-in 1975 and again in 1991, only to find it not there
in the end.
In both cases, Mr. Hussein retaliated, killing thousands of
Kurds and driving even more into the hills. In 1991, according to some
reports, more than 2,000 Kurds died every day of dehydration, typhoid, and
"In 1991, President Bush Sr. exhorted them to rise up, and in the end they felt
they were sandbagged and betrayed," said Mr. McKiernan. "There is this
history of U.S. abandonment. The people say they
have done the bidding for the U.S. in
the past, only to turn around and find a knife in
At that time, there were fears in the Bush administration of
entangling ground troops in a long-term war if the decision was made to topple
the regime. Also, there were concerns that further U.S. involvement would fragment
Iraq, causing destabilization in the region. There were worries about interrupting
the flow of oil, and President Bush was facing an election
the following year.
Mr. McKiernan first went to Northern Iraq during
the Gulf War and was shocked by what he found. Most
news organizations weren't very interested in the plight
of the Iraqi Kurds, and many Americans had never
heard of them.
"Back then, 1991, there were these terrible scenes of devastation," he said.
"You saw the people living in tents in the mountains, children buried
every day, a lot of sickness and death."
Between 1975 and 1990, Mr. Hussein embarked on a depopulation
campaign in Kurdistan, destroying more than 4,000 villages,
to most estimates.
|Women are among the fighters at a Kurdish army
KEVIN MCKIERNAN PHOTO ©
"There are a few
BMWs and Mercedes, some Internet cafes, and satellite
cell phones allowing people to call anywhere in the
world. You see women in (veils) walking alongside
teenagers putting on mascara."
Kevin McKiernan, about life in northern Iraq
In 1988, Iraqi warplanes dropped capsules of deadly cyanide gas on Halabja,
one of the largest cities in Kurdistan, killing more than 5,000 people,according
to a U.S. Senate report. Thousands more suffered from blindness, burnt skin,
miscarriages and birth defects.
Iraqi Kurds refer to this attack as their Holocaust. "Part of my assignment
this last time was to go to Halabja," said Mr. McKiernan, whose upcoming
documentary "Avoiding Armageddon," is for Turner Broadcasting. "This
event is seared into the collective memory of the Kurds and it remains what
they are most afraid of. There is this fear that if there is an attack on Saddam,
the U.S. forces will be there in their chemical weapons suits, and they will
be standing there naked."
The Kurds are so nervous about chemicals that all Mr. Hussein would have to do
to create a panic would be to drop bags of sugar from the sky, Mr. McKiernan
said. Thousands of people would immediately flee
for the mountains, as the refugees did in 1991.
While Kurdish history is filled with war and devastation, life is remarkably
improved today, said Mr. McKiernan.
Although it is not a state, Kurdistan is now somewhat stable. A United Nations
resolution has set up a "safety zone" over the region which bars
intrusion by the Iraq army, and daily fly - overs by U.S. and British military
ensure that it is enforced. An unofficial government is in place and the
with their neighbors. An oil refinery has been built and there is ample
food, thanks to the oil-for-food program.
"You can see now that people have disposable income," said Mr. McKiernan. "There
are a few BMWs and Mercedes, some Internet cafes, and satellite cell phones
allowing people to call anywhere in the world. You see women in (veils) walking
teenagers putting on mascara. There are female judges, and dozens of newspapers,
including the one from Saddam's party."
For the first time in decades, the Iraqi Kurds are experiencing a fragile
liberation, which could come crashing to an end if the United States goes
"These are boom times, they are running their own show, there is money,
trade and jobs," he said. "Some say Saddam is in a cage since
Sept. 11, so why even go there? But others believe that the only way to
what they've got is to go after him now."