The first checkpoint outside Iraqi government control at Girda Rasha on the road north from Kirkuk is a grim spot. Kurdish security men living in a few filthy cabins on the desolate plain carefully check the cars of people arriving in Kurdistan from all over Iraq.
It is as good a place as any to find out what Iraqis are thinking about in the weeks before a war they know is going to change their lives.
"Nobody will dare tell you anything in Baghdad," a shopkeeper from the capital told me. "If he does, the Mukhabarat [secret police] will take him away and you will never find the body." Despite the freezing rain, many people I met showed relief in their faces because they had just passed safely through the last Iraqi checkpoint, often with the help of a small bribe. Most were afraid of giving their names because family members still lived in Baghdad-controlled areas.
Two points came across very strongly. The majority of Iraqis welcome the overthrow of Saddam Hussein by the U.S. not because they have any great trust in American motives but because of the misery of their lives over the last quarter-century. "It doesn't matter who gets rid of him," said a man from Baghdad. "The important thing is that there should be a change."
Speaking to the travelers also brought home to me the extraordinary diversity of Iraqi society. An Iraqi proverb says, "Two Iraqis, three sects." The Sunni Arabs of Baghdad and northern Iraq have always dominated government, usually at odds with the Shiite Arab majority in the capital and the south and the Kurds in the far north. In addition, Iraqis often have strong tribal loyalties or may belong to the Turkoman, Assyrian or Chaldean minorities. This mosaic of differing ethnic or religious loyalties means that every Iraqi city or town has its own complicated politics.
Both the desire to be rid of Hussein and the diversity of Iraqi politics have important implications for U.S. policy in Iraq.
Obviously it is good news, from the American point of view, that Iraqi society does not identify with Hussein. But this also means that Iraq post-Hussein will be very unlike Japan and Germany after defeat in World War II. Most Japanese and Germans had supported their defeated rulers and were open to their societies being remodeled by outsiders. Iraqis believe that Hussein and his regime lasted so long only because of covert U.S. and European support.
The complexity of Iraqi society also makes the country a peculiarly lethal minefield for an occupying foreign power, whatever its intentions.
Here in northern Iraq, over the last month the prospect of war has raised two issues that affect millions of people. The first is the threat of a Turkish military occupation of a swath of territory in northern Kurdistan. Akram Mantik, the governor of Irbil, the largest Kurdish city, said to me, "Turkish interference is our biggest problem, bigger even than Saddam."
Turkey wants to become a major player in the affairs of northern Iraq. It says it will support the local Turkoman minority and wants to limit, if not end, the de facto independence of the Iraqi Kurds who fought their way free of Hussein's control a decade ago. It would also like to prevent a half-million Kurds deported or forced to flee by Hussein from returning to their homes and becoming the majority in the oil province of Kirkuk and elsewhere.
The Bush administration has been trying to get the Turks, Kurds and Iraqi opposition on board by spraying promises about how they will all get what they want after the war. Here in Kurdistan, it felt like an election campaign last week as U.S. officials offered postdated checks to Turks and Kurds in return for their immediate support.
Not all these checks will be honored. Some Iraqis are bound to feel betrayed by any postwar settlement. Many are too exhausted by the disasters of the last 20 years to protest too much. But the U.S. may also find that not all of Iraq's problems can be attributed to Hussein.