'Frontline' examines Iraq from the outside in

The grim headlines from Iraq this week, detailing the carnage heaped on one group of Iraqi Kurds by another, are a good setup for Frontline's timely documentary, "Beyond Baghdad," which airs Feb. 12 on PBS.

For the investigative report, PBS correspondent Martin Smith spent five weeks going deep into the Iraqi countryside to understand the real challenges of bringing stability to post-Hussein Iraq.

"There's no one there [who is] serious and knowledgeable who thinks things are going to be resolved in a matter of months," says Mr. Smith.

The show began to take shape when the American ambassador to Iraq approached Smith with the reproach that journalists in Iraq weren't giving a fair picture of the whole country. With that criticism in mind, Smith and his crew set out to cover vast swaths of the country - with the exception of Baghdad which, he maintains, gets entirely too much attention from the mainstream press.

The PBS correspondent feels there's too much emphasis on stories about US troops meeting resistance in the city.

"It's a simple story and it plays well in the smaller clips on the evening news," he says.

Irreconcilable differences

The show probes deep problems in Iraq, he says, primarily stemming from the historical differences between religious and ethnic groups in the country, something that is not uncommon in the Middle East.

"The Kurds are trying to defend their autonomy, and are not willing to join with the rest of the country," he explains. "The Shias are very worried about the Sunnis, and the Sunnis are now a minority."

Smith opines that Iraq's problems are similar to the ones that Yugoslavia faced after Marshal Tito was deposed. "It's not a direct parallel, but there are parallels in that Saddam [Hussein] held that place together," says Smith.

David Fanning, a producer of Frontline, says he became interested in telling the bigger story in Iraq once it became clear to him that the Bush administration had a larger agenda in mind.

"Rather than perhaps an issue of imminent danger and weapons of mass destruction, this was really a model for remaking the Middle East," says Mr. Fanning of his reading of the situation.

The American public has very little understanding of the issues facing the entire Middle East, he says.

"If the real intent of the policy is a major transformation of that region," says Fanning, "then we take the measure of what it will take to bring a kind of stable democracy to Iraq."

'Frontline' on the front lines

Martin and his crew spent many hours talking to US soldiers. The veteran reporter says he was impressed with their sober attitude to their jobs.

"They feel exhilarated in some sense by the complexity of the experience and the newness of the job. Many of them seem to be rising to the task," he says.

The soldiers tend not to assess their role from an ideological perspective, he adds. "They don't go in there with a point of view that this was a good thing or a bad thing to do, it's a just a job that they have to do. And they think in terms of what works and what doesn't work on the ground."

In most cases, the military is tackling the work that humanitarian or government agencies might be expected to handle during civic reconstruction because the country is still so dangerous.

"[The soldiers] are reaching back into their own personal past to figure out how to deal with civil-engineering problems they didn't know they were going to deal with," says Martin.

Here, as in other cases of when countries go to war, he adds, "it's the 19-year-olds who are in there having to deal on a daily basis with people, who are learning in a very slow and clumsy way how to engage with the Iraqi people."

How to conclude US involvement in Iraq is the issue that now hangs over the war and its aftermath, say the show producers.

"The question now is: Are politics in the US going to drive our withdrawal too soon and leave more of a mess?" says Smith.

"We need to be very careful at this point in time especially," he says, "but we're going to be really wringing our hands if a bloodbath erupts after we've walked away."

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