- The Washington Times - Saturday, August 13, 2005

Hot dog days

The torrid weeks of August are supposed to be the dog days for news, when readers and reporters alike clear out of Washington if they can manage it, and little of import happens anyway.

So why do we have so many big stories coming up this week?

• Tomorrow is the deadline for Iraq’s various political parties and ethnic groups to deliver a draft constitution to parliament, with enormous implications for the country’s future and America’s ability to begin bringing home troops.

• Wednesday is the official date for Israel’s evacuation of troops and settlers from the Gaza Strip and four West Bank settlements. The action will actually begin tomorrow with the eviction of nonresidents and likely will go on for days or weeks.

• Thursday is the beginning of Benedict XVI’s first foreign trip as pope, a historic visit by the first German-born pontiff to his homeland.

Set-piece events like these, which can be scheduled long in advance, tend to get more coverage than breaking stories, if only because the world’s news organizations have plenty of time to get their reporters and cameramen into place.

But all these are important events in any case, destined to set the tone for news developments for years to come. And coverage of each offers a unique set of problems.

The Iraqi constitution, at least for this newspaper, is the most straightforward.

We do not have a staff reporter in Baghdad at this time and do not plan to send one until the national elections this winter, though we plan to embed reporters with the military from time to time.

The security situation in the Iraqi capital is so precarious that it is not safe to keep a reporter there without maintaining a hugely expensive support crew of guards, drivers and fixers. Only a few of the biggest news organizations now are doing that, and those operate only with teams numbering in the dozens.

So we will rely on the wire agencies and our Washington-based reporter Sharon Behn, who in three trips to Baghdad has developed enough telephone contacts within the Iraqi political parties that she is often able to beat the Iraq-based reporters at their own game.

Lockdown in Gaza

The pope’s trip to Germany should be much easier to cover. We have arranged for Berlin-based freelancer Jabeen Bhatti, a former Washington Times staff reporter, to travel to Cologne for the duration of the four-day visit.

At present, it looks like her biggest problem will be finding a place to stay in a city that no doubt will be jammed to overflowing. Luckily, Cologne is just up the train line from Bonn, which we hope will have plenty of surplus hotel space since the German capital moved to Berlin.

Some of the toughest coverage problems are faced by Joshua Mitnick, our correspondent for Israel and the Palestinian territories.

Israel indicated some time ago that it would shut down access to the Gaza Strip well before the evacuation date to prevent nonresidents of the settlements from crowding in and resisting the pullout. So Mr. Mitnick and a few other reporters arranged weeks ago to rent an apartment in the largest of the settlements, and he moved in earlier this week.

But the Israelis are also going to prevent people moving from one settlement to another, a problem we simply can’t get around with just one reporter. On days when the soldiers are clearing out other settlements, Mr. Mitnick will be reduced to watching the news coverage on TV with the rest of the world.

But the soldiers may loosen up if things go smoothly, and, at worst, he will be able to watch with other settlers and get their reactions. And we expect some vivid reporting from him when the evacuation process reaches his settlement.

We also suspect that some of the most interesting news may come not from the departure of the settlers but from the Palestinians as they move into the vacated areas and begin trying to establish their authority.

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

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