Into Iraq – A Traveler’s Journal

June 27th 2004

I arrive at Attaturk International Airport in Istanbul. This is the fourth time I’ve flown into Attaturk from New York, but I’ve never seen such a high level of security, which is due to the NATO Summit being held here. TV monitors show mass demonstrations on the streets of Istanbul, protesting President Bush’s attendance, but here at the airport, the main indication of his presence (besides the heightened security which follows him everywhere) are two blue and white planes parked on the airfield, marked ‘The United States of America’. I’ve never seen Air-Force 1 before, and both are bigger than I thought, actually dwarfing some passenger planes. The percentage of the tarmac reserved for them, and subsequently unavailable to other aircraft, seems inordinately large; thus allowing me to begin my writing with a clever analogy for the US presence in the Middle East.

June 28th 2004
After taking a domestic flight to Diyarbakir (the closest major, Turkish city to Iraq), my original plan was to grab a taxi, make it over the border as quickly as possible, and then try to reach Baghdad in time for the power handover on the 30th. Before leaving Diyarbakir, I decide to go into town to re-establish contact with a few people, to leave open the option of a side trip I hope to make, time permitting, to a hidden Guerrilla camp in the mountains of Northern Iraq.

When I meet with my friend, he tells me that he just heard a newsflash: Power in Baghdad was handed over early!

I don’t mind not being there the very minute it happened, what I’m interested in, is the Iraqis’ reaction to it. My immediate concern is whether I’ll be able to get over the border now.

After the Iraqi government was to take power on July 1st, it had been reported that a visa would be required to get into Iraq, reportedly, to restrict the inflow of foreign insurgents. Not a bad idea, but I didn’t have one. Since the actual war had ended, the border was, although inconvenient and time-consuming, largely open and unregulated, as long as a passport was shown, and I had planned to squeak in a few days before this all changed. Now the power had been handed over early, but would the visa rule begin early as well? I couldn’t find out, so I’d just have to go and see what happens.

June 29th 2004
After a five-hour drive, much of it along the desolate, barbed wire-decorated border of Syria, I see a long line of transport trucks. As we pass them and get closer to the entry point, the huge vehicles extend, motionless, over the horizon in both directions. My fear of being refused entry proves unfounded, and the whole process takes under two hours; even the Turkish guards are pleasant. I feel extreme relief, and then have a realization:

The two weeks before my trip had been incredibly hectic, and I had been so fully preoccupied with catching all my flights, and then worrying about the visa problem, that I hadn’t time to think much about what it was going to be like when I crossed the border. Now I’m here and breathing a sigh of relief, it hits me. “Jeez, I’m in Iraq alone again.” All right. Here we go…
In the border town of Zakho, I find an Iraqi taxi that’ll take me to Dohuk, and then another for Kirkuk, my first destination.

Most areas of the Kurdish-controlled north do not have the same chaos as cities in central or southern Iraq, but there are still hot spots nonetheless. On the way to Kirkuk, we pass through Mosul, likely the least safe place in Iraq’s north for an American travelling alone. About three months ago, while driving through the city, a pickup truck with a gun mounted in the back passed by the cab I was in, without noticing me. It could have been some sort of police vehicle, but that’s one difficulty about war-torn countries; you can’t always tell who’s on which side. This was probably the same day that Nick Berg was taken into custody in Mosul. Still, it’s better than Baghdad.

I arrive in Kirkuk and get dropped off at a hotel. As I check in, the security guards are changing shifts, and a pile of six AK-47s is on the counter. The sun is beginning to set over the brown buildings of Kirkuk, so I drop off my two bags and head out to walk around a bit. My trip thus far has mostly been in transit, and I am anxious to see what I came here to see, the people.

It is good to be back on the fast-paced, busy streets of the Middle East. Smoke fills my eyes and nose as I walk past men cooking ground lamb on skewers, over a big black iron grill. A mix of Iraqi, Egyptian, and Kurdish music blasts from the shops I pass, as well as from the beeping cars and trucks, which I gingerly sidestep when crossing the street. I pass by stacks of cold soda bottles, piles of fresh produce, huge hanging racks of meat, and tables filled with audiocassettes and pirated DVDs.

Many people speak to me, and I am first struck by the concern for my well being by almost everyone I meet. I’ve experienced this in Baghdad and Kabul, but Kirkuk has been considered somewhat stable, at least compared to other Iraqi cities. Not that there isn’t violence here, but it’s mostly factional, and wouldn’t be directed at me. The situation has apparently deteriorated.

Kirkuk is an interesting place. It has three major ethnic groups; Kurds, Arabs, and Turkmens, all of whom claim the city as their own. (There is a fourth and smaller Christian group, the Assyrians, who by necessity are largely neutral.) During Saddam’s time, the Kurds and Turkmen were oppressed, and forced out of jobs and homes to make room for incoming Arabs. Now with a new power structure being established, everyone is clamouring for control. Add to that, the whole city is sitting on what is thought to be Iraq’s largest oil reserve, so the stakes are huge, classifying Kirkuk as a potential powder keg. How things go here could well decide if civil war looms in Iraq’s future, and it’s a good example of how messy things are throughout the country.

As I walk around, it is insisted by many that I sit down to have scalding tea, served in little glasses. Kurds warn me to be careful of Arabs and Turkmen, Turkmen warn me to be careful of Arabs and Kurds, and Arabs warn me to be careful of everybody.

I ask people for their opinions concerning the handover of power. Everyone has an answer, but some seem more concerned with local issues.

Mohammed, a man in his late thirties who I speak to in his photocopy office (consisting of one photocopier) tells me that he is happy for any power at all in Iraqi hands, but perceives the handover largely as a coalition public relations exercise. He sees L. Paul Bremmer and his cronies leaving the country two days early after a surprise five-minute ceremony as cutting and running. “Maybe the (new) Iraqi government will be good anyway. We have to wait and see what they do,” he says. When asked whether he’s better off now, than a year ago, he says, “Yes, I have a mobile phone now.”

Most people here in the north, where stability is more or less present, seem to have a favourable opinion of Saddam being taken from power, but the more I ask about it, the more they will tell me that they are critical of who did it and how it was done. Mohammed’s brother stops in to visit, and tells me, “After the US don’t need the Kurds, they will forget us again.”

These are the opinions of some, and more are coming, but I would like to strongly assert that there is no unified Iraqi opinion; nor two, nor three. Just like everywhere else, impressions of the day’s events vary widely from region to region, group to group, and person to person. Also, people I speak to in America always want to know “What the Iraqi people think”, and seem to expect some special simple wisdom from me, by virtue of having walked Iraqi streets. There is no such wisdom, any more than an Iraqi walking the streets of America would be able to solve domestic political issues for us. As I read fewer articles targeted for the American public, and spend more time here, everything just gets more and more confusing.

June 30th 2004
I awake to the sound of screaming. I haven’t slept much in three days, so by the time I realize where I am, I hear a car speeding off with the screaming person, and it is eerily silent again. I go downstairs and the reception clerk tells me that a young teenage boy working at a restaurant next to the hotel was burnt with cooking oil, which somehow caught on fire, a testament to third-world working conditions. Since there is a curfew, nobody could drive him to the hospital, so the clerk called the police, who showed up in only a minute or two. They helped the wounded boy into the back seat and drove him to the hospital.

I had joked around with three or four boys there hours earlier, and wonder which one it was.

In the morning, I walk to another part of town to return to a newspaper office, I once visited. Ra’ad, the editor, had been very nice to me and told me three months ago to let him know if I ever needed any help. Not having many connections myself, I go there hoping he can get me on a patrol with the new Iraqi police force, but when I get there, the office has been closed down.

I’m told that the police headquarters is close by, so I decide to just go there and ask. On my way there, I meet some policemen having lunch in front of a restaurant, and two of them insist on walking the rest of the way with me, for my protection.
When we arrive at a large building, surrounded by iron gates and guards, I am referred, by an Iraqi, to a US soldier on site. It turns out that any requests have to go through them. I don’t have the US Military’s press pass, so I’m not sure how it’s all going to unfold.

I walk to the “safe-house”, which turns out to be a palace, turned US base. Upon reaching the twenty-foot high concrete barriers and piles of sandbags at the entrance, I am searched and questioned (with good reason, having shown up at a military base unannounced, without the correct credentials), and then told to wait for 1st Sergeant Jennings. When he arrives, he looks over my passport, asks some questions to feel me out, and tells me to follow him. I am shown past several military vehicles to a surprisingly inviting garden and relaxation area at the front of the ex-palace. Five or six soldiers sit around eating, talking, or reading. Jennings tells me to have a seat in the shade while he goes inside to speak to someone on my behalf. I am encouraged to have some breakfast, which I do.

I scoop scrambled eggs and bacon out of big green plastic bins that are lined up opposite a refrigerator, from which I get an apple and a container of grapefruit juice. It’s actually pretty good. It seems to be a big thing that they have bacon that day, so very little of it is given to the local dogs, which are running around inside the perimeter. The dogs seem to enjoy the company and all the food that they’re regularly given.

Everyone is friendly (or at least cordial), and when Jennings returns and sits down with me, I am a bit more comfortable than I was when I first approached the barricades out front. He has some cereal, and we talk for a while.

I hear many interesting things from him and others. There is an insurgent cell leader who was captured, sent to Abu Ghraib Prison, released because of the scandal, and then actually paid them a visit to say that he was back. After a badly aimed insurgent shell missed the base and hit a school, locals found the man responsible, beat him up, and turned him in. A sign was put up in front of the base saying that any US soldiers who turned themselves in would be treated fairly.

Anyway, I am told to come back at six or seven o’clock, and Jennings will have something set up for me. I walk back to the hotel, and on the way I walk through a market, which is on two bridges, over the remains of a river, filled with garbage. I’ve been told by many to stay away from the other side of the river, and for the first time in Kirkuk, it feels a bit chaotic, and as though I’m really somewhere I ought not to be. With tables, animals, and people cramped so close together, it feels claustrophobic. People seem on edge, and at least three arguments are audible. After crossing the river on one bridge, I cross right back on the other, smiling and making eye contact with as many people as possible.

I take a taxi to a hospital, and for the fourth time since arriving, a cab driver won’t let me pay him for the ride. When I try to press the point, he says, “No, no. You are friend. You are welcome here.” And pushes the money away. It’s very nice, but I feel kind of funny about it.

When I get there, two guards take me to the head of security, who allow me in to see the hospital. He also complains of not having enough weapons for all the guards. I heard the same thing earlier in the day about the police, too. This is perplexing to me. Of all the problems facing Iraq, I didn’t think that the lack of availability of guns was one of them.

The hospital is a frightening, loud place. There doesn’t seem to be anywhere near enough staff or resources. Many guards are visible, but I see almost no health workers. Groups of crying women and distraught men sit in the halls and stand in rooms. I see people with all manner of injuries, from head wounds to gunshot wounds, crowded together.

Abdula Ghalib Ali (above) lies in bed with bandages in his arm and chest, not able to move much. Eight worried-looking family members stand around his bed. He smiles, but is obviously in a lot of pain. The truck he was driving came under attack and he was shot, while transporting lights for Kellogg, Brown & Root, the engineering and construction division of Halliburton.

This company isn’t apparently concerned with its Iraqi employees as much as with its Western ones. When he finds out that I am an American, he eagerly gets a young woman to show me his proof of employment, which entitled him to drive through checkpoints. I guess it doesn’t entitle him to anything after the shipments get there.

In the early evening, I return to the base and 1st Sergeant Jennings tells me to come back just before the 11:00 PM curfew, and that I will be going out with US troops on foot patrol. Tomorrow morning, I could drive around with the Iraqi Police.
When I return, payment for a taxi ride was refused by yet another driver.

“Why?” I ask.

“You are welcome in my country.”

I try to give him some money anyway, and he still refuses.

He drives away, and I see there isn’t anyone around in front of the safe-house. I’m not sure if I should just walk in. I do, slowly, and a guy with a gun up in a tower yells for me to stop. Someone comes out to meet me and I am led in and told to sit down near the garden.

At close to midnight, I meet the six guys I am to go out with. One goes inside and gets me a bottle of water to bring with me on the patrol. Adnan, an armed translator from Turkey (in Kirkuk, a translator has to speak Kurdish, Arabic, Turkmenish, and English) shows up and we walk out the back gate.

For over two hours, we walk around the city, them patrolling, me taking pictures. I was interested in comparing the US and Iraqi patrols to get some idea of the progress of the Iraqi police and the extent that power has been handed over to them, two of the most crucial issues facing the nation. The US foot patrol gave me a good idea, at least in Kirkuk, and I have no reason to think it’s much different elsewhere.

The theme for the night was the unprofessional nature of the Iraqi police. Everywhere we went, the soldiers I was with, asked Iraqi police that we met for identification; told them what they were doing wrong, and walked on. They would get yelled at for being caught playing their radios loud and sleeping on the police cruisers in the middle of the street, or for not having their guns set on ‘safe’.

As far as I can tell, the criticism given was all warranted, but in no way could it be said that there was cooperation between the two forces. As far as the security goes, no power seems to have actually been handed over. The US soldiers were telling the Iraqi police what to do. With no visible decision-making authority, and the Iraqis still just following coalition orders, it’s difficult to see how and when they’d take any initiative.

July 1st 2004

I return for the fourth time to the safe house, and I still have no luck making the taxi drivers take my money for the ride to Kirkuk Police Headquarters.

“No. I want to pay.”

“Please, you are my friend. Welcome.”

Inside, I speak to Lieutenant Kamaran Khidhir, who talks about the problems with foreign terrorists, who come over the borders freely because no visa is needed. He also tells of how the different racial groups in Kirkuk get along except for a few bad guys, and the strength of the local Iraqi Police.

I ride around in the front seat of a police cruiser with some friendly policemen for a while, and then am dropped off at my hotel. I grab some food at the restaurant where the young man was burnt, watch Saddam get charged on TV, and go to my room to write this all out and catch up on sleep. After that, I’m off to Baghdad.

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