I awoke this morning to familiar sounds.
The pre-dawn crowing of roosters, then the minor, haunting notes of the 5 a.m. call to prayers. I packed my bags into a Nissan and headed south for Kuwait from this southern Iraq town of Al Kut. It is time to leave for home.
I know that for so many U.S. soldiers here, departure is a golden moment that they've dreamt of since they arrived. And for some an elusive one.
"90 days and counting" was the headline editors put on my second story from Iraq, as I wrote about Alpha Company, the Fort Lewis-based U.S. Army Reservists who fly Chinook helicopters.
The soldiers were counting down to a March departure date, a far later date than most had ever anticipated when they first left for the Persian Gulf.
Alpha Company recently found out that they will have to stay beyond March, while other reservists move into place and are trained. So they are going to have to keep counting.
As for myself, a journalist who has dropped into and now out of Iraq, the time has gone by too quickly. I would not mind at all if my editors asked me to stay for another few months.
A driver named Rajal
This, our last stop, is headquarters for Mercy Corps, a Pacific Northwest aid group that is funding school renovations, women centers, water improvements and other projects.
Al Kut has been relatively peaceful, and seems to be on the rebound. New stores are opening, and merchants who once shut down at sunset now keep their buisnesses open into the early evening.
We rode south from Al Kut with a Mercy Corps contract driver named Jafar K. Rajal whose budding engineering career had come to an end when he refused to join the Baath Party.
Jailed for several months, he was finally freed after his family came up with a $15,000 ransom. Then, he launched a career as a Baghdad merchant, and had sizeable business that he lost to looting and arson after the U.S. ousted Saddam Hussein from power.
"I had one guard, but they (the looters) shot him in the shoulder," he recalls.
Rajal is now trying to rebuild a nest egg and hopes to eventually reopen his store. He likes to drive fast, and we were soon powering down the highways at speeds that topped 90 mph.
We were streaking down some of the same roadways that the U.S. military used to storm Iraq in the March invasion.
At Nasiriyah, where some of the toughest fighting took place, I could still see plenty of knocked out walls and other signs from the spring advance.
For us, it was a peaceful ride sprinting around trucks packed with sheep, tanker truck convoys, and several bus caravans full of Iraqis headed for the Mecca pilgrimage in Saudi Arabia.
This year Iraqis are able to drive to Mecca through Kuwait, which closed its borders to such travel during the regime of Saddam Hussein.
After Nasiriyah, we left the farm land and moved into the desert. We could see the flares from oil fields in the distance. And up close, along the shoulders of road , a rather remarkable sight. The best winter rain in years had brought a stubble of green to the chalky landscape, a hopeful sign.