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Next morning another guy was brought in and beaten up in front of me, idle cops didnt bat an eyelid, it was obviously just par for the course, justice Iraqi style. Bashkale, an interesting site in Turkey I recognised was on TV but the locals swore they would never show anything Turkish on Kurdish TV, I wasnt going to argue. A big cheese general and his sidekick then showed up and I received another short half-hearted grilling, he was obviously more used to other minions doing the dirty work though and quickly only wanted to help. I re-iterated the deal agreed with the Yanks that the police had to transport me to Sulimaniyeh, and I also queried the need for the consul, they took away my passport for the umpteenth time, what a circus. The by now jovial commander whose bed I had slept in was a changed man, I had done a good job in buttering him up and now all he wanted from me was 3 kisses before he left! The Americans turned up at noon again and so we sat and ate felafel together, them in full combat gear, me and Adam the midget cop, it was surreal. Through Captain Wolfe I spoke on the phone with Andrea the Brit consul and was invited to visit them, they would not be visiting me and I was under no obligation to see them, I had done no wrong after all. I thought it prudent to listen to what they had to say though, I was here to research the place if nothing else and including their safety briefing made sense. So suddenly the deal with the cops was superfluous, the Yanks agreed to take me up to the consulate which was quite some way away, co-habiting on an American State Department facility in the northern Kurdish sector known as the REO (Regional Embassy Office). I climbed into one of their Humvee armoured cars and we were off at last.

It was quite an experience. With me in the back and the interpreter guy the other side, we had fatman Purvis sat dangling in a harness between us as he manned the rooftop M60 through an open turret. Any traffic that didnt make way for us or got too close got shouted at and the M60 pointed at them, we must have been really intimidating. Drivers stopped and showed their empty hands, other vehicles crawling along or parked were picked out as suspicious and we crossed the central reservation onto oncoming traffic if it afforded the safest route. Sat behind Captain Wolfe I could see him using a sophisticated GeoSat imagery of the city to navigate, probably talking to a satellite in real time, quite a piece of kit. Entering the Kurdish sector which had been built by the Brits 50-60 years ago, it was discernibly cleaner, more orderly and felt safer as was remarked. The REO appeared as a chicane of road blocks and tank traps which were tricky to negotiate in our wide Humvees but eventually we were met at a gate by 2 heavily armed guys built like brick shithouses. They looked like death and werent for talking, I could have guessed they were ex special forces. Soon up trotted 4 guys Reservoir Dogs style and I was introduced to Chance and Jesse, who were American security guys, David the Brit vice consul and Gary one of his security team, all very friendly. With strangely no frisk or bag check, I was ushered in across the compound and soon met Andrea the consul who was obviously at a loss as to what to say to me. A little underwhelmed by vague statistics of road bombs here and there, they convinced me however that the Penjwin border crossing to Iran was too dodgy to attempt. They had had 3 IEDs (roadside bombs) and 1 VIED (car bomb) along the Penjwin road in the last 2 months, a Qattusha rocket arms cache had been found and there had been firing on the Iranian side. The memorial to Saddams genocide at Halabja had been torched to the ground earlier that year too. I reckoned I could still have passed OK but under the circumstances a second problem and they would have thrown the book at me, I had no choice but to stop short of it and that meant that going to Sulimaniyeh was now both equally dodgy and pointless. Later I had a further short security briefing from Gary which left me similarly underwhelmed, it seemed they knew less about the situation in the Kurdish north than I did, but it did prove slightly entertaining. After explaining what would happen tommorrow and issuing me with body armour and goggles, he told me that they had had 2 similar visitors a year earlier. They turned out to be 2 secret service guys, one with 3 sets of ID and the other none at all! I remarked how quiet the city seemed and Gary laughed.

Though the security guys were cool I could tell the consular staff werent happy with me, but again I had done no wrong, they thought I didnt take the security threat seriously. Whilst I made a point of being diplomatic I wasnt going to take any crap from them either, I had my reasons for being there and no matter how much they didnt like it the word on the street contradicted their advice. On querying whether I had checked out the government travel advice website, I was able to tell them that there wasnt a single reference to Kirkuk on it, not that I had intended going there anyhow, the cops had brought me there I reminded them. For good measure I also threw in that if you did a Google search on Kurdistan you came up with nothing in digestible form for people interested in the place and if the place was ever going to become stabilised then that was what was needed. So there was the Catch 22 situation that somebody had to go there and find out about the place, somebody had to be first, and that included finding out where was safe. I told them they could expect more unexpected visitors like me, I wasnt the only traveller who had passed this way and I wasnt going to be the last. They were also obviously taken aback at where I had been, in the worst part of the city. The powers that be had obviously done a good job in putting the fear of death in them about such places, even in their armed convoys they would never go there.

They were a strange duo for what they were. Andrea the consul looked eternally tired, broken even, certainly very sad. She reminded me of what it was like to live at your work and never be away from it, as I had done most notably with the NAAFI. On her intended journey to satisfaction the career path mentality had brought her nothing but down a dead end and maybe she could see it, she seemed deeply unhappy. David the vice consul on the other hand, a young guy who had to be no more than mid 20s, still had all that to learn and was intent on trying to play a part which didnt suit him. Staring at me shiny eyed, emphasising the situation upon me as though trying to give me a ticking off, he tried to be assertive but was just a kid who wasnt going to tell me anything. It was almost laughable but then I had been his age once, he would make the same mistakes as the rest of us. Later over lunch he couldnt help but have another dig, they could have thrown the book at me and charged me a few thousand for their trouble he threatened, my impending silence meant that he thought he had me. For once I had stopped short of succinctly pointing out that I was only there at their invitation and had done no wrong, I was clearly more the diplomat than he! Later he told me that he had been on night duty in Baghdad when the Ken Bigley affair had blown up, he said he was just a mercenary who deserved everything he got.

It transpired that David would be travelling to Arbil the next day and so I was invited to join him, it made sense so I grabbed it. Though not used to having visitors there were a few cubicles for transiting guests and so I was ensconced in-house for the night. I wasnt supposed to wander anywhere without an escort but reckoned that the TV room was reasonable enough. There I found some blokes of the consular protection force, including 2 Scottish guys, one of whom Gary from Inverness was the boss.

Posted by andyhay 00:00 Archived in Iraq

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