On a journey that took us through arid level countryside at 120 mph, and verdant mountainous regions at a considerably slower speed, we witnessed the interesting dichotomy that is present-day Iraq.

Iraqrural

(Image: Rural area)

You sense the hope here, but you are also barraged by the visual reminders of a land that has been racked by pain and struggle, one that teeter-totters on a sharp fulcrum which sways events and the general psyche between harmony and discord, security and instability. Foreign radicals from outside, Turkish encroachment from the North, and ethnic and religious tensions from within – all these combine to make an increasingly-potent, bubbling stew of friction and hostility.

Iraqhousedemo3

(Image: Making way for an uncertian future)

Over these past few days we have crossed through dozens upon dozens of militarized checkpoints. For most of these encounters we have been accompanied by a former Major of the regional security forces who, with flashing hazard lights, a couple of short phrases, and a gesture towards the back seat coupled with the word, "Americans," quickly and uneventfully navigated us through these necessary obstacles.

Iraqsecurityforces3

(Image: Security detail)

Over the years, I’ve visited no less than eighty nations. I’ve seen many shotgun and rifle-clad police and government-security officers in numerous countries spanning both hemispheres. But I’ve never seen such an abundance of weaponry as I have witnessed here in Iraq. Guns are everywhere – revolvers, semi-automatic side arms, shotguns, rifles, machine guns, and even old "Tommy" guns with circular cartridges bulging out from both sides of wide paint-flaked barrels.

Iraqtoyguns

(Image: Children’s toy guns at a local market)

But I’ve also seen many moments of endearing beauty – mothers caressing and tickling their children on front porches, rowdy boys playing spirited games of soccer in the dusty streets, families enjoying quiet picnic outings in the scenic hill country, and a colorful wedding celebration at a natural mountain spring flowing with cool waters.

Iraqiboys

(Image: Street ball)

I marveled at the spectacle of the wedding party…dancing, playing, laughing, hugging, kissing, posing.

Flowers were exchanged. Hands clutched gifts.

Iraqwedding3

(Image: Children at the wedding celebrations)

Less than fifty yards away a detail of security officers pulled up dressed in full battle fatigues and arms…assessing, watching, strutting, posing.

Orders were exchanged. Hands clutched weapons.

Iraqisecurityforces

(Image: Mike and Paul with an Iraqi security detail)

It’s a wonderful and pitiful double-sided drama that plays out right before your eyes. You feel that you are part of the cast yet, forgetting your lines, you just sit and observe as it unfolds and potentially…unravels.