"We were so happy the first few days. But now we are not so sure," says [our driver]. "It should be good now, you know? But it is not good."
By the time we reach Suleimaniya, the iPod has run out of batteries and [our driver] has grown fond of Norah Jones and Shootyz Groove.
Even in the dark of night, it is easy to see that Suleimaniya is pro-American. It almost feels Western, with its burger joints and Internet cafés. The cars in front of our Beemer, unlike those of the rest of the country, stop at red lights and proceed only on green. At the light, our translator, [name removed], who seems positively giddy to be back in his hometown, points to a graffiti sign in Kurdish that reads, "We love you George Bush!" A few blocks farther on, "PUK + USA" is encircled by a red heart pierced by an arrow.
"I love America," [our translator] tells us. "They have come to Iraq to save the Kurds." I try to tell him it's a bit more complicated, but he won't listen. "We know you favor the Kurds above the Arabs. So we welcome you and hope that you will never leave."
The gleaming marble lobby of the Suleimaniya Palace Hotel is full of American contractors from Bechtel, Halliburton, and the Halliburton subsidiary Kellogg, Brown & Root. Nobody is wearing their flak jackets in "Suly." The mood is relaxed. Suleimaniya is the one place in Iraq where Americans seem at ease.
We spend less than 24 hours in Suleimaniya and soon are cramped back in the BMW heading for Kirkuk. It's early morning, and we are chasing a convoy that is protecting the prime minister of the PUK, Barham Saleh. The PUK headquarters in Kirkuk had been bombed the previous night, and now thirty cars are headed south to observe the damage.
In oil-rich Kirkuk the situation is tense, as in much of the country. But unlike so many other places, here the war is inter-ethnic. Kurd against Arab. Turk against Kurd. Arab against Kurd. Various clans have pitted themselves against the others hoping to secure political control of the city, the only place -- thanks to the oil -- that can guarantee their economic viability.
"[No] group wants the Americans to leave," Colonel William Mayville of the 173rd Airborne tells me. "If we leave, this place will spiral into civil war. They may not like us, but they need us."
In the dust-caked Kurdish refugee camps on the outskirts of Kirkuk, our Beemer is greeted by a crowd of kids that welcome us with thumbs up, shouting "Bush good!" -- and then a thumbs down, "Saddam bad!" They don't know how to say much else. They call me "Mister," and some of them say, "My name is Saman" or "Mhnaz." Blocks away, in the impoverished Shia Arab quarter, kids with names like Ahmed and Zeinab call me "Lady." I almost feel like a real one.
Crowds of children reach out to shake my hand, and hold out babies for me to goo at. They poke me and pull at my shirt, begging, "Floos, floos," which means "money" in Arabic. They remind me of those kids I met this summer in the Sunni Triangle, except poorer. The Sunni kids also do thumbs up and down: up for Saddam and down for Bush.
In another makeshift Kurdish refugee camp, a couple dozen tents are pitched over ochre-colored mud. An older woman with heavy eye makeup pours fresh water from a well. She tells me through a translator that she is happy to have the Americans in town.
"We know that they will never leave us to be killed again by the Arabs."
I then talk to a crowd of young men gathered near a latrine. I ask them if there are good jobs in Kirkuk.
"I haven't worked for ten years," I am told through our translator by a young man with a gold tooth. "But I'm not worried. The Americans will provide."
[Editor's Note: The names of the Iraqi driver and translator have been removed from this dispatch for security purposes.]