Baghdad — THE young man with the AK-47 at a checkpoint in the Triangle of Death ordered us out of the car the moment he realized I was a foreigner. A flat gray sky closed in. Dust and diesel exhaust filled the hot air. He led us into the desert, over scrub brush and cigarette butts, toward a grizzled man in a wooden hut.
"And who is he?" the older man asked my Iraqi colleague and interpreter, Raheem.
I had repeatedly promised my bosses, my colleagues, my family and my wife, Delphine, that I wouldn't take big risks. But here I was in the early summer of 2006 in the middle of a lawless desert between Baghdad and Najaf that had swallowed up hundreds of Iraqis and not a small number of foreigners. I was speaking to a man who acted like a cop but looked like he could have been an insurgent commander, the head of a kidnapping ring or a death squad leader.
We were in a mostly Shiite Muslim part of the country, so I stuck to my cover story: I was an Iranian headed to Najaf, one of the thousands of Shiite pilgrims who make their way there each month to pay their respects at the shrine of Imam Ali.
He demanded to see my passport. To my surprise and terror, he thumbed through it. Then he calmly looked up and asked, "Where's your entry stamp?"
I had no answer. I had entered Iraq with my U.S. passport, which I wouldn't dare bring with me on the road. I froze.
Since first arriving in Iraq 4 1/2 years ago, first as a freelance reporter and then as the Los Angeles Times bureau chief, I had kept up the pretense that I was playing it safe.
Now that I am out of Iraq, I can begin to be honest.
For years, I had swaddled myself in layers of half-truths: I was an Iranian heading to the shrine cities. I was an average Joe from the Midwest who liked to go canoeing in the summer. I was a reporter for Radio Canada here to tell the truth about what's happening in Iraq. I was an Iranian journalist visiting the brave fighters of Sadr City.
Sometimes I went beyond the truth in the name of survival. I was a Sunni Arab with a speech impediment. I was a sympathetic journalist visiting the brave Sunni patriots of west Baghdad. I was among a group of pharmacists heading down to visit a hospital caring for truck bomb victims. Anything to get the story and get out.
In fact, I am an Iranian American reporter from Chicago, a graduate of Columbia University's journalism school, where I was taught that the greatest journalists were impartial and balanced.
But in Iraq, I measured success through my ability to make it past checkpoints and gunfire, to melt into the background as mysterious masked gunmen flashed by, to ease back into the office compound alive, story in hand, and to breeze past any of the day's complications in chats with my editors.
At the end of every day, I put on my iPod and got on the treadmill to release the tension. I called Delphine, a journalist who early on had shared so many Iraq experiences with me, and assured her everything had gone well.
At the checkpoint on the road to Najaf, I struggled to decide whether to admit that I was an American journalist for a U.S. paper traveling in disguise. If I did, the gunmen could kill me and everyone with me, and no one might ever find out what became of us. I couldn't bear to think what Delphine would do if she didn't hear from me that night.
MY time in Iraq had started so promisingly.
"Welcome!" said the peshmerga warrior. "Welcome to free Kurdistan!"
It was September 2002, months before the U.S.-led invasion. Delphine and I had just made it across the Iran-Iraq border into what was then the autonomous Kurdish enclave. We were freelance journalists then, in the springtime of our romance. We vowed to go on adventures together, in Iran, to the gulf, to Afghanistan. We had been struggling to get the necessary permits to cross the frontier into mountainous Kurdistan, and were thrilled to have finally made it in.
The peshmerga were irregular soldiers of an undeclared country. Even the border crossing from Iran was unofficial. We stayed at the Sulaymaniya Palace, an ostentatious hotel with terrible food and even worse service, but our first impressions of northern Iraq were great.
We were drawn to the Kurds' festive spirit, colorful weddings and boisterous candor. Their stated vision for a democratic federal Iraq was seductive in this authoritarian region of the world. They outlined their hopes in the snowy mountaintop town of Salahuddin.
"If the Kurds, the most unadvanced part of Iraq, can have democracy, why can't all Iraq have democracy?" said Jalal Talabani, then a Kurdish leader and now the president of Iraq.
But he also issued an ominous warning.
"Liberating Iraq is easy," he said. "Ruling Iraq is difficult. Ruling Iraq requires the full cooperation of the Iraqi people and the Iraqi opposition."