Plans in Iraq call for flexibility

November 22, 2008 

Notes from the week that was in Baghdad, where Bee staff writer Adam Ashton is on a two-month assignment for McClatchy Newspapers:

L esson No. 1 of reporting in Baghdad: Be patient, don't count on anything.

I've heard this from many reporters who've been here. Some things just aren't in your control.

Appointments get canceled. You can't get a source on the phone. You can't really leave the compound on your own.

Tuesday, we made a run for a noon news conference in the Green Zone. Our security adviser with the special badge that gets you in the zone the easy way had to be someplace else.

We took another route that leads to the main entrance used by Iraqis.

But the road, Abu Nawas Street, was closed by the military.

So much for that.

One of our staffers often says the Arabic phrase "inshallah" when we talk about plans and appointments. It means "God willing," as in, "We'll do this interview and write this story tomorrow, inshallah."

I've started to think that way when making my own reporting plans because something almost certainly will come up to change them.

Abu Nawas was interesting. It follows the Tigris River, mixing lots of street commerce with rubble and vacant buildings.

The message didn't quite match the setting.

Earlier this week, I went to a sort of news conference at the new U.S. Embassy in Baghdad. For those back in the San Joaquin Valley, it looks a little like a fortified UC Merced with big, government buildings surrounded by blast walls and armed guards. (No photos allowed.)

Two senior U.S. government officials gave their take on the security pact approved by Iraq's Cabinet and setting a course for the withdrawal of U.S. forces by Dec. 31, 2011. A second, related agreement defines Iraqi and American interactions on a slate of issues, such as trade, technology and health care. It's up to Iraq's parliament to decide whether to accept it.

One of the officials said Americans would have no legal justification to be in the country past that date, meaning the pact would have to be renegotiated for foreign soldiers and contractors to stay.

"Its validity ends unless there is an extension," one of the officials said.

That deadline is a key point for Iraqi politicians. They don't want to be seen as approving a deal that sanctions the indefinite presence of Americans in their country.

It was just odd to contemplate that exit while sitting in a new, $592 million embassy.

So you thought you were passionate about now President-elect Barack Obama and Sen. John McCain.

Iraqis are watching every twist and turn in a debate over whether to approve a treaty that calls for the withdrawal of American soldiers and gives Iraqis more control over U.S. military operations.

Passions over the pact led to a scuffle this week in Iraq's parliament, which resulted in the foreign minister's guards pushing away a member of parliament who was causing a ruckus.

That parliament member, Ahmed al-Massoudi, called the altercation an "attack." He belongs to a party tied to radical cleric Muqtada al-Sadr.

The Sadrists are calling for demonstrations against the treaty. His supporters have implied they'd raise arms against Americans if the deal goes through.

Parliament was nearly as exciting, with Sadrists trying to shout loud enough to block a reading of the treaty.

I went out to 14th Ramadan Street, a commercial strip in Baghdad's Mansour district, to ask Iraqis what they thought about the agreement. Everyone had an opinion, and they were generally skeptical about the motives of their representatives, not to mention doubtful that Americans would leave the country by 2012.

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