We're late because the drive from Dohuk takes an hour and a half, not the 40 minutes our guide had predicted. Now there's security, and the front gate is no fun. A long line of dusty Iraqi men stand waiting to get I.D. cards so they can get inside. As a soldier approaches, they surge forward and their line breaks into a clump.
A helmeted, flak-jacketed Screaming Eagle shouts, "Get the fuck back! Don't you people understand ANYTHING? BACK!" Then into a walkie-talkie: "I got PBS out here. Papa Bravo Sierra." Then to my co-producer, Marcela: "All those fucking idiots" -- referring to the public affairs officers he is trying to rouse -- "all they do is watch ESPN all day while I stand out here."
We stand outside in the sunlight on a chilly morning while we wait for our escort. In 20 minutes he arrives, and we climb into his 4x4. We drive on in, first through a slalom course of concrete barriers, then past the Freedom Laundry and Tailor, the Freedom Shoppette, and the Freedom Barber Shop. We are let off in front of The Palace.
Saddam's palace in Mosul is a modest affair as these buildings go. There are hundreds of them spotted around the country. This is just another. Nothing special. For practical reasons, like having lots of space and being in relatively good condition, they are popular with U.S. military and civilian officials. In Baghdad, Ambassador Bremer occupies the grandest of them all, the former Republican Guard headquarters. A public affairs officer told me, "We call it the Republican Headquarters now."
We walk up past neat hedges and trimmed lawns, and under a grand entranceway we look up to where the Screaming Eagles have hung their familiar logo -- that menacing eagle head with "Airborne" written above it. This is the headquarters of the 101st Airborne Division. "The only air-assault division in the world," I'm told several times during my stay.
Inside, we are introduced to Major Cate, chief of the 101st's public affairs office. In a room of laptops and soldiers, with one TV tuned to CNN, he sits us down for a briefing before we meet the general. "He likes everyone to get the basics out of the way," says Cate, "then your conversation can get to a higher plane faster. It's better for you and him both."
Cate's PowerPoint presentation is impressive. There's a lot here to show us. Maj. Gen. David H. Petraeus, the 101st Airborne's commanding general, is a success story in a country where failure is the norm. A Princeton Ph.D. who has taught international relations at West Point, Petraeus served a year nation-building in Bosnia. Cate shows us the CG's Iraq stats. "We were first to install a TV and radio station, first to hold a municipal election, the first to clear the streets, the first to..."
The presentation ends with one slide holding two pictures. In the first, it's 1945 and soldiers of the 101st are holding up a captured Nazi flag. In the second, it's 2003 and soldiers of the 101st are holding up a captured Iraqi flag. Cate says, "I just think it says a lot." The entire show takes about half an hour, and it builds suspense.
By the time we climb the palatial double staircase and stand before the double doors, we are expecting a larger-than-life modern legend. But when we enter, a smallish man in standard-issue desert camouflage steps forward, extending his hand, and greets us with a warm, open smile with a bit of an overbite. This kick-ass, fast-moving general, I think to myself, is disguised as a nice guy.
The office is large but unassuming. To the right, Petraeus's desk faces the wall. On the left is a formal sitting area with six or seven large, ornately trimmed, overstuffed chairs popular in the Middle East, arranged in a rectangle. "That's for the sheikhs," says Petraeus. Then he pulls up a couple hard-back chairs and offers me one.
Since I am supposedly well-briefed, I try to jump to the point straight away. I ask him how much of his success is due to what he did and how much is simply due to the nature of the region in which he operates.
"Well, that's a question I can't answer." He is modest. "Of course, context is important." It would be easy for the general to boast. He doesn't.
The 101st oversees much of northern Iraq, a region that includes the pro-American Kurdish cities of Erbil and Suleimaniya. On the other hand, the north's largest city, Mosul, where Petraeus is headquartered, is a majority Sunni Arab town where attacks on U.S. forces occur daily and where Saddam's sons were gunned down in July. "It lies within the Sunni Triangle," Petraeus likes to point out. Recently, someone has been hurling Molotov cocktails at liquor stores and cinemas.
We talk easily for the better part of an hour, and when I'm done Petraeus invites us to spend the day with him. He tells us he's got a ribbon-cutting for the new Mosul Free Trade Zone before lunch, then afterwards a planning meeting with soldiers moving out to support combat operations in central Iraq. Finally he concludes with a late-afternoon graduation ceremony at the 101st air-assault school set up several miles west of Mosul. We spend the day with Petraeus in his Black Hawk over Mosul and over Nineveh Province.