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.
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.