- The Washington Times - Saturday, December 18, 2004

Three days in Iraq

If you must visit Iraq, its a great way to travel — sealed into an armored sport utility vehicle as part of a 19-car convoy, accompanied by Iraqi army soldiers and private security guards, with Iraqi police closing off all roads ahead of your passage.

So it was for our reporter Sharon Behn when she accompanied U.S. Agency for International Development (USAID) Administrator Andrew Natsios on a three-day whirlwind tour of Iraq last weekend.

The trip came together on very short notice. I received a cell-phone call the previous Friday evening asking whether we wanted to send a reporter. I got the plan approved by our senior editors on Monday morning and handed the assignment to Mrs. Behn that evening. She was told to be in Amman, Jordan, by Thursday.

No problem, one might think, except that Americans now need visas to visit Iraq, a change since Mrs. Behn’s two previous visits to the country while it was still officially under U.S. occupation.

In the end, the folks at USAID helped out and Mrs. Behn was in Amman for her flight to Baghdad on Friday morning on a small plane with Mr. Natsios, two aides and a reporter and cameraman from Fox News.

The plane refueled at Baghdad and then continued north to Irbil in the Kurdish-dominated region, where the group piled into cars to be convoyed to an orphanage and a library to see the work being done by USAID.

“The trip was set up to visit aid projects, but the Fox reporters and I really wanted to report on the coming elections,” Mrs. Behn says. She did manage to talk to several students at the library, including a 14-year-old who told her he thought the election was going to mark a turning point for his country.

Back in Baghdad, the group was flown in a pair of Black Hawk helicopters directly to the comfortably appointed USAID compound inside the heavily guarded green zone.

“The green zone is no longer the haven for Americans that it was when I visited before,” Mrs. Behn reports. “Security has become much tighter and it is hard now to move around without special passes, which are changed constantly.”

Fallujah up close

The next day the group was up at 6 a.m. and back in the Black Hawks for a flight to Kirkuk, where they landed in a muddy field and climbed into armored SUVs for a short ride to the site where a power plant is being built by Bechtel Corp.

Then the trip got interesting, at least from an editor’s point of view. From Kirkuk the choppers took the group to Fallujah, where U.S. Marines are still mopping up from the biggest battles since the end of major combat operations some 20 months ago.

“We met some Marines who had just ended a shift on the ground in Fallujah,” Mrs. Behn says. “They were just kids, 22- or 23-years-old. We were able to talk to the ones who were trying to help set up elections and working on reconstruction while Natsios met with military commanders.”

Those quotes, along with the remarks gathered earlier in Irbil, formed the basis of a front-page story in last Monday’s paper, one of the few Fallujah-datelined stories by an American reporter since insurgents and terrorists took hold of the city in April.

Mrs. Behn, who is now home safely, will write at least one more major story from the trip, this time with the focus on the challenges of trying to rebuild Iraq in the midst of an insurgency.

And she will be going back to Iraq in January to cover the elections at the end of that month, armed with several new phone numbers and some insights from her latest trip.

“This was a different kind of trip for me because I had never traveled in Iraq with U.S. officials before, protected at all times and surrounded by security,” she says. “The officials are more isolated than we reporters are, but it was good to see from their point of view how they work and travel and judge the situation.”

David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is djones@washingtontimes.com.

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