Erbil, northern Iraq, Day 1.
We breathed life back into our reporting -- and ourselves -- from the moment we started shooting in downtown Erbil at night. The city was bursting with life. Shops were filled and the streets teeming with teenagers, couples and their babies, and older men sipping tea. I saw relaxed, smiling faces -- such a sharp contrast from the deep lines of stress and blank nervous stares of Baghdad. And it was all taking place after dark. Baghdad residents would never venture out like this.
A 25-year-old guy wearing faded jeans and highlights in his hair told us he was out with his friends looking for an "alcohol bar." He said the difference between here and the rest of Iraq was the Kurds. "I'm a Kurd first, and Iraqi second," he told me. Iraq's Kurds, who make up 15 to 20 percent of the population, are concentrated in the north. Between the first Gulf War and the U.S.-led invasion in 2003, a large part of Kurdistan was protected by a U.S.-imposed no-fly zone. Kurds effectively ran their own affairs then, and now with growing political power and a Kurd serving as Iraq's president, they are building a formidable mini-state.
Our hotel, the Erbil International Hotel, was a modern colossus, not the dusty, dank, run-down hotels I'm used to in the rest of the country. There were crisp white sheets, air conditioning that works, and a mini-bar. Some intangible combination of new windows, lighting, and other interior touches banished the feeling of Third World decrepitude. And in the lobby, a Chinese restaurant. Small pleasures make a huge difference in this part of the world.
To get there, we took advantage of a relatively new development in Iraq: domestic air travel. The roads north from Baghdad aren't safe, so flying is the only acceptable option for us. But it is not exactly reliable. We spent 10 hours in Baghdad's airport on Thursday waiting for our flight. It turns out that Iraqi Airways' schedule is more finesse than substance. An 11:30 a.m. departure becomes a 6 p.m. departure when the airline decides its flight to Istanbul is more important, and more profitable, because it will take more passengers than a domestic hop. I read "Zen and the Art of Motorcycle Maintenance" in the terminal to banish my frustration, and slept and caught some sun. But we did take off in the end -- a fleeting moment of "now we're getting there" until we landed in Erbil and discovered that the airline had sent our baggage to Sulaimaniyah or Amman or Turkey -- the answer depended on which employee we asked. We had one tape and one camera battery, enough for about an hour's shooting. We'd have to rely on our local fixer's digital camera.
Erbil's skyline is crowded with construction cranes. This is a city in the middle of a building boom. They are putting up a Four Seasons Hotel, a gigantic mall complex, and a huge suburban subdivision called "Dream City." A half-dozen new residential towers have already gone up in the last six months, the concrete parts molded in Turkey and assembled on site. And one-by-one, they are filling tree-lined streets with private homes. They are intended for Iraq's newly wealthy: They will have 16 rooms each and sell for a minimum of $160,000. I think fleetingly of buying one myself. If it stays safe, imagine what they'll be going for in one or two years -- if things stay safe.
In the end, we did get our baggage back, but several hours after we returned to Baghdad. All the equipment we packed so dutifully before we left -- the body armor, battery chargers, television lighting sets, and medical kit -- were sitting in the storage room right where we started our trip, at Baghdad International Airport. It turns out the bags probably never traveled more than 20 feet from where we checked them in. Fly the friendly skies.
Erbil and Kirkuk, northern Iraq, Day 2
The day started with a wake-up call, a shower with consistent water pressure, and a hot cappuccino in the lobby. More small pleasures. We are driving to Kirkuk today and for a few hours, must return to high-security mode. We decide to hire an armored car for the day. It's an early '90s model Mercedes, originally from Saddam's secret service, now rented by a friendly Kurdish used-car dealer at a rate of $600 per day. It's the first time I've driven this road in a year and a half and it's unrecognizable. There are new restaurants, an ornate hotel resembling a concrete sand castle, and endless billboards advertising soap, dishwashers, and Kurdistan's favorite pop stars.
We pass the last Kurdish checkpoint. A long line of cars snakes back from the south, each one checked and questioned and searched. The Kurds leave very little to chance.
They are increasingly running Kurdistan if not as a separate country, then as a fairly autonomous state. They have the advantage of homogeneity, experience and trust. Several Kurds, from officials to men and women on the street, told me the main reason the Kurdish areas have been safer is that the Kurds support their government. So if they see something suspicious -- a face or a car they don't recognize, questionable people up to questionable things -- they let the authorities know.
We drive up over a ridgeline surrounding Kirkuk (the same one I crossed in early April 2003 as one of the first Western television reporters to go into Kirkuk after it fell) and enter the city. I'm meeting with the police chief today, Sherko Hakim. He is ashen-faced when he pulls up in a police pickup truck, six armed guards in the back. He's just returned from the morgue, where he identified a relative killed two hours earlier by a roadside bomb. One of his guards still has blood on his shirt. The violence is never far away here.
Sherko tells me Kirkuk is in the midst of a low-level civil war -- Sunnis killing Shiites killing Kurds killing Turkmen. Kirkuk is a miniature Iraq effectively, a cauldron of ethnicities, but in very close quarters. It is a political battle as well. He says the interior minister, a Shiite, is trying to replace him, a Kurd, with another Shiite. To pressure him, the minister won't let him recruit replacements for the 160 officers he's lost in the violence. And that of course further feeds the violence, as the police simply don't have the manpower to begin to keep the peace. Outmanned, outgunned by the insurgency.
I notice during our interview that he's wearing an Idaho lapel pin. Why Idaho? I ask him. He says an American general gave it to him. He then tells me he's applying for asylum in the U.S. for himself and his entire family -- his wife, four sons and a daughter. He fears for his life, and I believe rightfully so. He pulls a piece of paper out of his front pocket. It's a boilerplate answer from the U.S. State Department explaining that the U.S. does not offer asylum purely for personal safety, and that he should contact his local police for protection. I'm sure the irony of telling a police chief to ask the police for protection was lost on whichever foreign service officer typed up the note, but Sherko was not smiling. He is an older man, nearing 70, with deep lines and tired eyes. It's the face of someone who's experienced a lot of suffering and yet is still scared. I ask him if he's afraid he'll be the next victim and he says: "That would be normal."
Erbil and Kirkuk, northern Iraq, Day 3
Another night's sleep on crisp white sheets and, again, a wake-up call that worked. I feel like I'm staying at the Ritz. Today, though, we'll take a marked step down.
We're visiting an illegal village just outside Kirkuk. It is, at the same time, a good and bad news story for Iraq. During his rule, Saddam Hussein was expert at ethnic cleansing. He forced tens of thousands of Kurds out of Kirkuk, to make room for Arabs, particularly Sunnis like himself. Becoming a refugee was of course a more desirable fate than ending up in a mass grave, but the life disruption for Kurds was crippling. After the war, they came running back from the north in droves, particularly to Kirkuk. But housing was lacking or too expensive, so they built their own -- out of discarded bricks, trees, discarded war material, whatever they could find.
When I visited the village two years ago for the first time, it was a handful of shanties, built, if you can believe it, on the site of an old Iraqi army ammunition dump. I didn't recognize it today. Acres of once-barren ground were filled with new homes. Most of them were no better than stone shanties, but others were decent replicas of suburban houses -- with colorful tiles, double-paned windows, and driveways. Above me was a spider's web of electrical wires, jury-rigged and drawing illegally from the city power grid.
We walked through the muddy alleyways, followed everywhere by the ubiquitous crowds of smiling children. They are sweet at first and then almost invariably mischievous. One offered my cameraman a candy and then withdrew it demanding "one dollar," though with a smile.
We pass one small home and a young mother asks us inside. She wants us to film her mother who is very ill. She hopes, somehow, that appearing on foreign television will bring her help. I want to help but don't want her to believe that ABC will magically mean treatment and recovery. We ask her if there's a hospital nearby. She says yes but that they don't have the medicine her mother needs. It's a common problem in Iraq -- a shortage of basic medical supplies. She realizes we don't have an immediate solution for her and lets us go.
I enter the home of Mehdi and his young wife. I'm amazed at how well-equipped it is: satellite dish and TV, washer-dryer, even a blender. Mehdi tells me that they'd like to have a legal home but anything was better than living as a refugee under Saddam. His only complaint is that there's no bus to take children to school. He says work is pretty good. He is a mechanic -- and judging by the condition of the crumbling cars and trucks we see around here, I'm certain he has little trouble finding work.
He has a new baby daughter, named Kashmera, an Iranian name. Many Iraqi Kurds have relations across the border in Iran. Even in the worst of times here, I'm always amazed at how many Iraqi friends and contacts of mine are having children. To me, it is one positive sign that people here believe in their and their children's future.
As we make our way out, we are surrounded again by more children. I look at them for small signs of change. Their clothes are a little bit cleaner than I remember last time. They all seem to have good teeth, often a rarity in Iraq. A few know some words of English, which most study at school. Some sport American hip hairstyles, gelled back and neatly trimmed on the top. They are Iraq's future and I wonder to myself what their lives will look like in five, 10 or 20 years.
Jim Sciutto is the London correspondent for ABC News, and since moving overseas in 2002, has reported from more than 25 countries in Europe, Asia and the Middle East, including multiple assignments in Iraq.