Reporter’s Notebook: In Baghdad, Capital Vistas Gradually Shrink With Insecurity

Washington Post

Reporter’s Notebook: In Baghdad, Capital Vistas Gradually Shrink With Insecurity

By Robin Wright, Washington Post, Friday, November 25, 2005

BAGHDAD — Five months after the fall of Baghdad, I went to Iraq with Colin Powell. It was the first visit by a secretary of state in half a century, and although he moved under heavy security, there was an optimistic, forward-looking feel to the trip.

Much has changed about Iraq in the intervening two years. And visits by America’s secretary of state — first Powell, then Condoleezza Rice — have proved to be a microcosm of America’s intervention here.

On our first trip, in mid-September 2003, the State Department entourage and diplomatic press corps stayed for two full nights at the legendary al Rashid Hotel, the high-rise once heavily bugged by Saddam Hussein’s security goons. Iraqi vendors in the hotel arcade sold military paraphernalia and souvenirs from the old regime. Medals that Hussein once bestowed on his troops went for 10 bucks — or less, if you bargained enough.

Back then, we could tool around the Iraqi capital. With a New York Times colleague, I walked through the concrete barriers down the lonely lane that linked the protected Green Zone to the rest of Baghdad. U.S. troops stationed along the route didn’t stop us.

Much of the downtown commercial area was shuttered. We stopped by the national museum, looted and closed. We drove by the infamous Information Ministry, a bombed-out shell. We saw government buildings stripped in the postwar chaos, leaving not a chair or telephone or filing cabinet, much less government records.

We also wandered freely around Hussein’s favorite Republican Palace, the headquarters for the new U.S.-led occupation government. We marveled at the marble halls. We stopped to gawk at Hussein’s gilded throne in a hall festooned with frescoes of giant missiles blasting into the sky.

Back then, Powell would leave the Green Zone — surrounded by a security “bubble” — for meetings with Shiite, Kurd and Sunni government officials, and then dinner with a prominent Shiite cleric.

At a news conference in the Green Zone’s convention center, Powell was upbeat, citing a city council meeting he had just attended where a new generation of Iraqi leaders debated everything from the environment to the role of women in the city’s life.

I asked Powell if he had seen a fair representation of what was happening since he had not left the security bubble in Baghdad or met with anyone unhappy with the U.S. presence.

“There is just a great deal that is happening in this country, whether it’s the formation of PTAs in local schools, whether it’s our brigade commanders giving $500 to each school in their district as long as that school comes up with a PTA, something unheard of here before. . . . That’s grass-roots democracy in action.”

* * *

My second trip to Baghdad, on July 30, 2004, some 15 months after the fall of the city, was a secret. This time, the press corps traveling with Powell couldn’t report it until after we’d landed.

We traveled from the airport to the Green Zone in Black Hawk helicopters, with U.S. troops perched in open windows on both sides manning machine guns that fire as many as 4,000 rounds per minute.

The route was so dangerous that we were all given flak jackets and helmets for the short trip.

This time, we didn’t stay even one night. The al Rashid had come under rocket fire in October 2003, when then-Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz was visiting. The attack had killed one American soldier and wounded 15 other people.

The hotel was off-limits even for journalists traveling with Powell. When I pressed the case, a diplomat offered to escort me through a new barricade between the convention center and the hotel, which was just across the street. Unfortunately, she didn’t have clearance for the hotel. I didn’t get in.

This time, Powell’s bubble — and ours — was much smaller. America’s top diplomat didn’t leave the Green Zone and U.S. security wouldn’t let the press out, either. I did manage to travel inside the four-square-mile zone with then-Deputy Prime Minister Barham Salih to his residence.

We drove down palm-fringed boulevards with ornate villas once home to Hussein’s aides, generals and family, and now inhabited by Iraq’s new leaders, U.S. contractors and Iraqi squatters. We passed a busy open-air bazaar where gregarious Iraqi vendors hawked trinkets, carpets, T-shirts and techno-gadgets. Complete with parkland, monuments and ministries, the Green Zone is a city within a city. It was only a brief outing, but when I got back, the State Department’s security team still read me the riot act for breaking out of the bubble.

Most of the time, the news media waited at the domed and well-guarded convention center as Powell met with Iraqi leaders who had assumed power from the U.S.-led occupation government a month earlier. But there was no connection with ordinary Iraqis or the real Baghdad.

This time, the focus and tone of the secretary of state’s news conference at the convention center were notably different.

“We have to make sure that these insurgents understand that we will not be deterred,” Powell said. “There can be no other option. The Iraqi people deserve freedom; they deserve democracy. . . . We must not let outsiders or insiders of any kind deny the Iraqi people that which they richly deserve and that which they want.”

* * *

My latest trip to Iraq, on Nov. 11, 31 months after the fall of the capital, was kept secret even from some of the people on Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s plane. The dozen members of the traveling press were summoned to the State Department the day before we left on a trip to the Middle East and sworn to secrecy after a briefing about the additional stop.

We could tell an editor and a family member, but we were asked not to mention it to anyone else, particularly our bureaus in the Iraqi capital — and not on the phone or by e-mail to anyone, at all, anywhere. If word got out, the trip would be canceled. A leak had forced the postponement of a similar trip in the spring.

The road between the airport and the Green Zone was officially considered safer, but we still flew in armed Black Hawks moving in diversionary patterns through the sky.

On this latest trip to Baghdad, the bubble shrank even more. No roaming the Green Zone. Not even a stop at the convention center. The press corps, including veteran war correspondents, was sequestered in Hussein’s old palace for most of the seven-hour stay. We were discouraged from wandering the palace and were provided escorts to go to the bathroom.

Our one venture out was a short hop to the nearby prime minister’s office, also in the Green Zone. All we saw were new barricades trimmed with razor wire, concrete blast walls, roadblocks and time-consuming identity checks. No Iraqis. No vendors. In October 2004, the bazaar had been attacked, one of two almost simultaneous suicide bombings inside the Green Zone that together killed 10, including four Americans.

On this latest trip, Rice’s biggest task was to talk to Sunnis — five leaders who represented groups ranging from Islamist to former Saddamists — still unhappy with the new Iraq.

At a news conference with the prime minister, America’s top diplomat emphasized Iraq’s responsibility for its future.

“Any people coming out of a period of tyranny, as the Iraqis have, and now out of a period of violence, have to find a balance between inclusion and reconciliation and justice,” Rice said. “And that is a process that I’m sure the Iraqis themselves will lead.”

For the first time, we pulled out after dark. As we flew from the Green Zone, the Black Hawk gunners wore night vision scopes, which look like little binoculars on eyeglasses, so they could spot suspicious activity through the night. The pilot of the C-17 military transport that flew us out of Iraq did not turn on the interior lights until we had reached a safe altitude — and were well out of Baghdad airspace.

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