Saturday, May 26, 2012

Baghdad May 22-24

This is a first for this blog -- a trip without Clinton.

The "P5+1" nuclear talks with Iran were set for Baghdad, at Tehran's request, and these are held at the "political director" level, two rungs below secretary of state. But with what Obama has called "the drums of war" sounding louder, Reuters decided it would be good to have somebody go with the State Department team. And that somebody was me.

It's a long trip from DC, and not just in distance. We had to meet up with the State Department delegation in Amman on Tuesday to be ready to fly into Baghdad on Wednesday, and that meant leaving Washington on Sunday afternoon. After the relative ease of flying on Clinton's plane, this is a trip done solo -- airports, connections, baggage, taxis..the normal stuff. I arrived in Amman late on Monday (after having breakfast in Paris with my old colleague from AFP, Christophe Schmidt) and then spent Tuesday waiting for the State people, who showed up in mid-afternoon. Then more waiting while the political directors of the P5 had their last meeting before the Baghdad talks, and an off-the-record briefing at about 11 p.m..

The U.S. Embassy in Baghdad -- the largest U.S. embassy on the planet -- runs what it calls "embassy air" between Amman and Baghdad to keep the U.S. personnel cycling through. We went on these planes -- two turboprops -- but it was touch and go until the last minute because one of Iraq's huge sandstorms had closed Baghdad airport. The sand lifted and we departed, and two hours later I was back in Baghdad.


I've now been to Baghdad at least three times and I have no idea what the real city looks like. When I was here in 2005 we were under strict security instructions never to leave the Reuters compound, so I didn't see anything beyond our own blast-wall lined alleyway. On the Biden trip for July 4, 2009, we saw "Camp Liberty", the huge U.S. military base, but nothing of the city. This time I was hoping I'd get to see more, but that was not to be -- we were stuck in the Green Zone and pretty much locked in at the conference site, so the real Baghdad remains a mystery.

You do get a little sense of Saddam's Baghdad, tho. All the journalists were billeted at the Rasheed Hotel, which in Saddam's time was the government's hotel of choice. Now managed by a Turkish company, the Rasheed is trying to get itself back in business and it sort of seems like a normal hotel...until you walk in the room and are confronted with a bleary, aquarium glass window...bullet proof, perhaps an inch thick, and unopened in 20 years. The whole place had a fish tank aspect...looking out you could see an empty tennis court, a few struggling palm trees, and in the distance the "Victory Arch" made of two giant hands (modeled on Saddam's) holding crossed swords. All covered in a light brown dust.

We also arrived Saddam style, coming in through the special VIP airport terminal (see picture). It was a hilarious place, done inside in hugely overstuffed furniture, crystal chandeliers, oriental rungs, etc. I'll put a picture of the furniture at the end .. what you can't really make out is that the buttons holding in the "tufts" are fake diamonds.

The talks themselves were held at the new government guesthouse -- a sort of government hotel (newer than the Rasheed) which had sufficient security. The diplomats were all inside, holding their meetings, and the press were kept penned outside in what looked like a famine-relief tent. When we walked in our hearts sank -- it was already packed with Iraqi journalists (mostly burly guys from TV crews, smoking cigarettes and chatting). They had tried to set up air conditioners but they didn't really work, so it was boiling. And the promised Internet connections went up and down like a yo-yo. The Iraqis certainly tried to put things together, but the logistics were impossible. They had a separate tent where periodically they brought out trays of food (sample menu: Iraqi pizza, Iraqi french fries, bread, deep fried chicken bits) which immediately set off a feeding frenzy among the big-bellied TV crews, who emerged carrying paper plates stacked with carbs and immediately brought them back into the main tent, followed by swarms of flies. Great.

The talks had initially been set for one day, but at about 4 or five in the afternoon we heard they were running late. And they did...ending at about 11 p.m. and set to continue the next day. We didn't have much news to file, but the State Department took us back to the Embassy where we got a briefing (at 1 a.m. or so) from the U.S. delegation. This was pretty useful because it was some of the first real comment/info on what had happened in the meetings. So that meant we had to update our story at 2 a.m. or so - and the next day we went back to the conference center at 8 a.m. Sleep deprivation was a big part of this trip.

Luckily Reuters had a couple of other people there, including our EU correspondent who has followed these talks in the past, so I didn't have to explain it all myself. Its a complicated dance -- uranium enrichment levels, different sanctions from different countries, various suspect Iranian sites -- and all of the pieces overlap in different ways. On Thursday we were back at the talks site, and a second sandstorm blew up, turning the sky a hazy orange and bringing dust into the mix inside the press tent. When I opened the laptop to write this, you could see the thick film of dust across the screen and keyboard. It was another day of waiting..periodic emails to government press contacts inside the building, but not much information. And no idea when, or if, we would be leaving. Everybody was pretty eager to get out of there, including the delegations. But the talking and haggling went on..and on..and on. At about 4 we were told to get ready for a press conference, and there was a mad rush for the room where it would be held...elbows flying, TV crews shoving, the whole bit. But once everybody got inside (through another security check) it was announced it had been delayed to 7. So more waiting around, back out through security to try to go to the bathroom (two stalls for the whole crowd..not pretty).

The EU foreign policy chief, Catherine Ashton, did finally come out around 7:30 and say her piece -- tough talks, which seemed to yield nothing but the agreement to talk again. The two sides remain so far apart on the basic issues (whether Iran has the right to refine uranium, and whether the West is right to impose sanctions) that you wonder how any deal could ever get off the ground. But both sides have a clear diplomatic interest in at least continuing to talk about that is what they are going to do, next month in Moscow.

After Ashton's press conference we were hustled straight out of the press conference room. The U.S. delegation gave us another briefing, for about 15 minutes, and then it was into the motorcade for the ride to the airport. They didn't have buses so it looks we got every armored Mercedes in Iraq -- a whole delegation plus press chauffered out three to a car. I was rushing to send through notes and quotes from the U.S. briefings to the Reuters guys in Baghdad to add to the story, and finally sent the last bit as we reached the airport. More milling around there, with the diplomats from the P5 in one grand reception room and the few scraggly members of the press and lower-ranking staff in another (less grand) one, but all featuring the Saddam overstuffed furniture. We got onto the plane and were out by 10 p.m. -- arriving back in Amman after midnight.

Since I'd had enough of Amman I went down to the Dead Sea, where I went last time I left Iraq. Getting there at 3 a.m. kind of reduces the pleasure, but it was nice to be able to be outside and it is a starkly beautiful place. I didn't get in the water this time tho..I remember last time I did and it hurt like crazy, with salt being rubbed into every open pore. Now I'm sitting in Paris, half way home and really ready to get there