AP Blog: Bush Visit Shocks Iraq Reporters

The Associated Press
Tuesday, June 13, 2006; 5:10 PM

-- AP Correspondent Ryan Lenz is covering events in Iraq from Baghdad, where he was on hand for President Bushs surprise visit.

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Tuesday, June 13, 11:55 p.m. local time

BAGHDAD, Iraq

Today we were supposed to be watching history transpire on a secure videoconference between two leaders _ Iraq's Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki and President Bush. Instead we watched it in person as hundreds held cameras high over their heads to capture it on tiny pixel screens.

It was a complete surprise to see him stroll calmly into the room _ strange and surreal.

But the signs were there if you've ever seen the security that surrounds a presidential visit before. The bomb dogs. The pat downs. Bags searched. Cell phones taken away. The hallways in the U.S. embassy were vacant in the middle of the week, when they're normally abuzz with American workers.

We were required to show up for a videoconference in the Green Zone hours before anything was to begin. And as we waited, a few reporters began a pool, a little game to pass the time. Pick the dignitary.

One vote for Blair, another for Cheney. Someone thought for sure it was Condoleezza Rice who would soon pass into the room. Only one guessed Bush.

We passed around conjecture and analyzed the situation. It couldn't be Blair, he was just here. Condi was a good bet, we agreed. But Bush? An appropriate time in Iraq _ a high-profile terror leader killed, a new government getting to work. But never.

Just as we settled in, the White House press corps burst through the door, sweaty and breathless after running the corridors of a former palace turned U.S. compound to catch the president's first words in Iraq. All bets were off.

On the ground here in Iraq, we've heard that it was a ruse, that Bush slipped away from dinner to board Air Force One in the dead of night to fly around the world for a high-profile meet-and-greet with Iraq's top government official and his closest advisers.

And after Bush and al-Maliki slipped behind heavy doors to begin their meeting, some of us kicked ourselves. We should have known.

When we arrived at the embassy expecting to cover a few hours of mundane banter bounced off satellites, the embassy staff assigned us all password protected computers with no access to our own networks.

As we waited in the "green room" as the president met with Iraq's leaders, I overheard a few embassy staffers saying "keep them in the hole," referring to that incommunicado state of existence that's hell on earth for a reporter, especially in Iraq.

And late in the night, an AP photographer, a Spanish filmmaker making a documentary about the trial of Saddam Hussein and I sat in the lobby of the al-Rasheed hotel, recounting all the telltale signs that should have spelled out clearly someone was coming.

Like the tank that sits in the parking lot of the hotel: even in Iraq, that's strange.


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