We took a trip to Kirkuk today. It was eye-opening.
The road seemed perfectly safe from here in Erbil, Iraq. There was plenty of ordinary traffic, and normal checkpoints, along the 65-mile route. But it was somewhat interesting that our local drivers, for the first time, brought sidearms, Kalashnikov rifles, and extra magazines to work.
We went to the Kirkuk Air Base. "Krabtown" is what the thousands of U.S. troops who were stationed there called it. The ghostly remnants of the American G.I.'s presence are everywhere.
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We saw a bumper sticker pasted onto an old Soviet MiG fighter jet. "Wall Drug South Dakota," it said.
Another one displayed the American grunts' motto in this long war: "Embrace the Suck."
The U.S. turned the air base over to the Iraqi Armed Forces in 2011. You'd never guess.
This afternoon, the place seemed like no one had given a damn about it for decades. There was trash everywhere. Broken vehicles no one had even bothered to repair. Whoever was stationed here seemed to have no pride at all in this place.
When the ISIS forces took Mosul last week - but before they had even reached Kirkuk - the Iraqi forces fled, stripping off their uniforms and discarding them in the dirt.
ISIS never came anywhere near the base. But the Iraqi troops fled anyway.
Before they ran, they looted the base.
There was a safe shot full of holes to get it open. All the electronics seemed to have been torn from the desks and walls. Large shipping containers had been wrenched open and rifled for anything valuable.
It was so forlorn, and so infuriating at the same time. All that American money, all that American sacrifice, all that American idealism - trashed, dumped in the ancient, unchanging, Mesopotamian dirt. We were so naïve.
After the Iraqis fled, Kurdish peshmerga soldiers took over. They are cleaning the place up. They shake their heads in disgust at the condition the Iraqi forces left "Krabtown" in, and they laugh the cruel laughter men who fight direct at men who run. The Kurds will fight. This base belongs to them now.
As does much else up here in the north.
We also spent some time with the governor of the city of Kirkuk, Dr. Najmaldin Karim. A neurosurgeon, he spent 33 years in the U.S., and still has a home in Silver Spring, Md.
Karim is very successful local politician, and Kirkuk under his administration is widely seen as a model of "what might have been" in Iraq, had there been any decent leadership in Baghdad.
But Karim feels the end is near. The end of Iraq.
"It is a real possibility," he says.
He believes the ultimate answer for this broken land is likely to be "a confederation of autonomous states." One for the Shia in the south, one for the Sunnis in the west, one for the Kurds in the north.
And as for Kirkuk, which has long been fought over by Kurds, Sunnis and Turkmen--and which sits on an ocean of oil riches?
"It will go to Kurdistan, probably," he says. "Yes."