TIKRIT, Iraq — We made it inside the city limits, about 5 km from the city center, before we got shot at.
We had decided to get an early start and headed out to Kirkuk and then to Tikrit. Along the way, we agreed to meet in Kirkuk to form a convoy of other journalists. While we were waiting for the other guys — mostly Italians and Germans — to show up, we talked with some of the Kirkukis.
The appearance of calm is deceptive, they said. During the day, the police keep a semblance of order, but at night, roving gangs with guns have been terrorizing people in their homes. The people we talked to also said they had had no water for four days.
“Why doesn’t America do something?” asked Salima Abdul-Kadir Abdula, a nurse at the hospital in town. She can’t drive to work because she’s afraid of carjackings.
More ominously for the future, perhaps, was Sham Sideem Hassan, 45, a charismatic teacher who was working the crowd that had gathered.
“These Arabs here, they are Saddamists!” he yelled. “They have to go! They cannot stay! Kirkuk is Kurdish and Turkomen. Get those Arabs out!”
The last line was the money line, causing the crowd to burst into applause. Another man tugged my sleeve, pointed to Hassan and said, “This is good, this is good!”
Figures vary, but there may be as many as 100,000 Arab families who were trucked up to Kirkuk under the Ba’athist regime’s policy of Arabization since 1977. It’s unclear how widespread Hassan’s ideas are, but they don’t bode well for the future.
After we finally hooked up with our convoy, we set out. They all had combat vests and four-wheel drive vehicles. But we soldiered on, even when they stupidly stopped at a crossroads about 10 km from the city limits.
“We heard something about this crossroad,” said their translator as he stepped out of the car. There was no cover anywhere and we were easy targets.
“Why the hell are we stopping?” J. asked and Freydoon gunned the engine.
The route to Tikrit is ugly and tiresome. Not quite desert and not quite fertile, dust rises at the slightest breeze and gets everywhere. The hills are jagged and dimpled with craters, some outlined in scorch marks. The land is blasted away in many places. Even in April, standing in the sunlight for a few moments was uncomfortably warm.
The road was thankfully spotted with peshmergas, but their presence was light, so we were wary. Along the way, we passed an overturned mobile missile launcher with the missile still attached. To my and J.’s untrained eyes, it looked like a surface-to-surface missile.
Entering the city was tense. We had no idea who was friendly and who wasn’t. The peshmergas told us that Arabs were shooting at any Kurds they saw. The streets on the outskirts were mostly deserted. The few men who were on the street carried Kalishnikovs.
Our convoy stopped on the outskirts so some PUK peshmergas could stage a little media event. A large billboard of Saddam in Bedouin dress greeted visitors. They doused it with gasoline and set it on fire, posing in front of the burning portrait for our troupe’s cameras.
While we were standing around admiring the flames, a man in a dark car, coming from the direction of -Haweja- Uja, Saddam’s birthplace, pulled up. He watched the billboard burn silently and then waved at me. I was about 20 meters away. I waved back warily. Then he beckoned me closer.
No way. I shook my head at him and called out to J., Freydoon and Sabah, our translator. “Let’s go.”
Smoke from the direction of Haweja was a black smudge in the sky. We could see, off in the distance over Tikrit, an American helicopter gunship buzzing low over the rooftops. Every few seconds a muted BOOM rolled over us. Reports from our short-wave BBC pickup said U.S. troops were meeting little resistance.
We moved further into the city along a four-lane highway with a median. Two of the other SUVs were in front of us. Suddenly another SUV pulled in front of our train and stopped. The man in the passenger side draped a white flag out the window at arm’s length. Another dark car pulled up on his side blocking the way. Something smelled really bad about this situation.
“Back up, back up!” we demanded of Freydoon, and he pulled back far enough to spin the wheel and force us through a gap in the median. We heard shouting behind us and then the sharp crack of gunfire. We all ducked and Freydoon floored it north out of town. I don’t know what happened to the Germans and Italians and I’m worried.
We drove back to the ruined missile launcher before I made the call to try again. But on the way back in, we saw many, many cars streaming from the direction of Tikrit, including a number of media cars. Several drivers motioned for us to turn around and by the third time, I was sufficiently freaked out to pay them some heed. We turned around and caught up with a truck full of men. As we sped along the highway, they told us the Arabs had started shooting at everyone in sight, and that Tikrit was not safe.
I decided we should head back to Kirkuk to work out our next move.