Wednesday, December 30, 2009

Road Trip: Back to Baghdad

We rolled out of Kirkuk this morning at 0630 headed for Tikrit. It was still dark at that hour and traffic was pretty much non-existent. Our little convoy made good time. I haven't said much about what our convoys are like, nor talked about our security measures - with good reason. I will say, though, that with a bunch of burly battle-tested guys watching over me, I felt pretty safe.

We went south by a different route than the one we took up a couple of days ago. The land south of Kirkuk is about as flat as eastern Colorado or western Kansas, only a grayish tan rather than bright green. There are a lot of farms, many of them using the wheeled irrigation systems like Americans use. Iraqi farmhouses in that area, though, are nothing like American. These are pretty small, maybe 400 or 500 square feet, made of blocks (often mud), with flat roofs. Often (not always), they'll have a courtyard that's maybe 100 by 100 feet surrounded by an 8-ft block wall, with a big metal gate covered with brightly-painted sheet metal.

We saw a lot of kids, maybe 7-10 years old, heading off to school. The boys were dressed like boys everywhere, and were clowning around like boys everywhere. The girls were usually dressed in black robes with white headscarves and seemed to be more reserved than the boys.

The trip through the countryside was pretty uneventful. Once we hit Tikrit, though, the tension in our convoy wentway up. Tikrit is still unfriendly territory and we hit it at rush hour. Americans do not want to spend any amount of time sitting stuck in traffic because we will draw unwanted attention. Fortunately, the police don't want us to sit in traffic at their checkpoints for the same reason and they stopped traffic and made plenty of room for us, as much as they could, at any rate.

The drivers in our convoy were pretty aggressive about moving through traffic, making holes where none existed, blocking other cars, using the horns, sirens, and squawk boxes pretty judiciously, and staying together. It wasn't like a Hollywood chase movie, it was more like "excuse me, pardon me, coming through, make a hole, sorry" as we cut and wove through backed-up lines of cars. I breathed a big sigh of relief when we hit the open highway again. The Aegis guys? They relaxed and joked about it.

We arrived at Camp Speicher, outside Tikrit, at about 0900. I had enough time to stretch my legs for a bit and then was bundled into another convoy and off we went again, bound for Baghdad. This leg had no drama, which was fine, since Tikrit was enough drama for me.

In the US, our roadside stops are often something like a big Mini-Mart, with the cashier tucked away inside, and you pump your own gas, thank you very much. And all the food is sanitized and wrapped for your protection. In Iraq, well, things are a bit different.

We cut around the town of Abu Ghraib, another place that is still not very fond of Americans, and arrived back at our base about 1 pm. Finally! I was glad to stretch my legs and get out of my body armor. After dropping my stuff off in my own little room and grabbing some lunch, I was back in the office to play catch-up. And by the signs of it, not much changed in the office while I was gone.

I've wanted to get out beyond the wire ever since I arrived fifteen months ago. This trip finally let me see more of Iraq. Different parts of the country are very different: landscape, people, politics, business, economy, everything. This trip was invaluable for making decisions on at least one of my projects, which is why I took it. But it also brought home to me a simple fact of life for Americans in Iraq: you don't go beyond the wire unless you have to. I felt safe, but as I noted, I had a bunch of combat-tested guys taking care of me. If you're going to risk their welfare and possibly their lives, the trip had better be pretty damn important.

If you've been reading the last couple of posts, they unfortunately didn't have any pictures. I'm going back to them right now and adding some, so go take a look.

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