Saturday, April 8, 2006

Baghdad surprise

I came to work last Sunday expecting a cute human interest story from reporter Nicholas Kralev about Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice’s visit to Blackburn, England, with her British counterpart, Jack Straw. So I was a little surprised when Mr. Kralev called to say he was in Baghdad and would be filing in a couple of hours.

Surprised, but not shocked. We’ve gotten used to the idea that when senior administration officials travel to Iraq, they keep their travel plans strictly secret for security reasons until they are safely in the country.

Mr. Kralev says he had gotten a hunch a week or two before the trip that something might be up and had asked officials at the State Department whether they might be going somewhere extra — like Iraq or Libya. “Absolutely not,” he was told.

The 14 men and women of the press who routinely accompany Miss Rice on her travels — referred to by the department as “the traveling press” — were told on Friday in Blackburn that they would leave the following day for Iraq.

“They told us we couldn’t tell anyone,” Mr. Kralev says. “Not our spouses, not our parents, not our editors. No one. They said if word leaked out that we were going to Iraq, the trip would be canceled.”

The group left Britain on Saturday evening and landed the next morning in Kuwait, where they transferred onto a U.S. Air Force C-17 Globemaster III for the final leg to Baghdad International Airport.

In Baghdad, they encountered a rare desert rainstorm, scotching plans to travel by helicopter to the safety of the Green Zone. Instead they were issued flak jackets and helmets and placed aboard a heavily armored bus for the one-hour ride over the notorious airport highway.

“If there was any dangerous part of the trip, that would have been it because it hadn’t been planned,” Mr. Kralev says. “But I think we all felt pretty safe.

“You knew you were in a war zone, but you could see people going about their daily lives. … They told us the bus had previously been hit by an [improvised explosive device] and survived it, so that was comforting.”

Straw ‘embedded’

Mr. Kralev’s story for the Monday paper led with the obvious political news: Miss Rice and Mr. Straw had told the Iraqi politicians that patience in their home countries was wearing thin and the Iraqis had to hurry up and form a government.

But there was an amusing little item tacked onto the bottom of the story: On the overnight flight from England, Mr. Kralev had written, Miss Rice had offered Mr. Straw the single bed on her plane and had slept on the floor.

It was a delightful nugget, recalling the press attention generated when former President Bill Clinton slept on the floor of an airplane, giving up the only bed to former President George Bush during a tour of tsunami-hit areas.

But it also seemed a shocking violation of the normal rules of chivalry. I was astonished that an English gentleman like Mr. Straw would let a woman sleep on the floor while he enjoyed a bed.

I would have liked to make more of it in our story, but it was late and communications to Baghdad were difficult. I left it as a single paragraph at the bottom of the item and to my regret, the paragraph was cut later that night when the page designer ran out of space.

My regret only deepened when I saw columnists discussing it over the next few days. In Britain the Guardian newspaper played it up with double entendres about the “special relationship” and the headline, “Jack becomes embedded while Condi loses sleep.”

All that was a bit unfair, according to Mr. Kralev, who says he asked the British secretary about the incident on the flight back to Britain. Mr. Straw told him he willingly accepted the offer of the bed but had no idea that Miss Rice did not have a proper place to sleep herself until he woke up the next morning.

• David W. Jones is the foreign editor of The Washington Times. His e-mail address is

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