After the first male Arab voice responds on the telephone at the old Iraqi embassy off Dupont Circle, you get a somewhat dramatic Chopin piano concerto on the line. A second person comes on, the music resumes, and then you finally hear the authoritative answer from Baghdad's top man in Washington.
Akram J.M. Douri, chief of the Iraqi Interests Section, laughs out loud when asked if he would agree to an interview -- not about politics, but about how diplomacy is conducted by someone in his situation. "Diplomacy? This has turned into a huge fight with problems. Everything we studied at school about social evenings and Vienna waltzes has flown out the window," he said with amusement.
Douri was fresh out of the University of Baghdad, where he graduated with a degree in economics and political science, when he was posted as a junior officer at the Iraqi Embassy in Lebanon. It was 1973, and he witnessed that country's ugly descent into war. He later attended the Iraqi Foreign Service Institute in Baghdad, holding high hopes for a distinguished career. The two-year program offered intensive and advanced courses in economics, international relations, languages, etiquette and protocol to "enhance my skills," Douri said.
The Iraqi diplomat, now 53, went on to serve in Kabul (1985-87), Islamabad (1990-94) and Washington (1981-85 and 1999-present) -- all of which, in an unusual confluence of history and bizarre bilateral circumstances, ended up being "hardship posts," he said good-naturedly. But as the saying goes back in Baghdad: "The Foreign Ministry is not the Ministry of Tourism."
With daily talk of war against the government of Saddam Hussein, Douri says he feels frustrated about carrying out his mission here as a diplomat. "Diplomacy can only be cultivated in a healthy ambiance. Any diplomat's ambitions, as someone who wishes to succeed, should be to elevate ties to an optimal level," Douri said. "The only way you can do that is by contributing something different, something new or unique to enhance the relationship. Circumstances of our work here do not allow this."
Since Washington and Baghdad broke relations in 1991, the Iraqi Interests Section has operated here under the Algerian flag. Its main duties mostly involve catering to the consular needs of the 250,000-strong Iraqi American community, issuing travel documents for green card holders and translating birth certificates for infants born here, as well as keeping an eye on students enrolled in American institutions and making sure illegal immigrants are returned home. Douri also managed to organize the recent visit of several U.S. congressmen to Iraq and helps issue between 2,000 and 3,000 visas a year, mostly to Iraqi Americans wishing to visit relatives and to American journalists and nongovernmental organization staff members.
As the topic of Iraq permeates television talk shows and editorial commentary, Douri and his children have nevertheless made American friends at the gym and in their neighborhood. "Americans are very friendly. They visit us, we visit them. We take walks together," he said.
"I would like to say so many things. . . . We would like to carry out our mission here and express the views of our country, but we keep a low profile," Douri said. The embassies of Turkey, Russia, Yemen, Qatar, China and Algeria invite him to their national day receptions, and think tanks include him on their mailings for Iraq-related programs, which he said he attends.
He did oversee a golden period in U.S.-Iraqi relations, however. He was commercial counselor in 1981-85, when trade between the two countries was $3 billion a year and Iraq had 2,500 university students on scholarship here. "America was very much in favor of us then. There were loans, business ties and lots of delegations were coming and going. We held large receptions here," he reminisced, leaping from his chair and pushing open two huge wooden doors leading to a lower-level grand foyer with a large fireplace, ornate mosaic panels and walls decked with cream and gold-colored damask brocade. There were 60 Iraqi diplomats then, and the times were good.
The three-story brown brick building at 1801 P St. NW, built 106 years ago and bought in 1961 by the Iraqi government, once exhibited rare objects of Sumerian culture from four millennia before Jesus. But now some of the bulbs in the crystal chandeliers lighting the offices are out. And with its surrounding barbed wire and dark-tinted security doors, the building, entered by a dusty back door, looks somewhat grim and uninviting.
Its 30 rooms and 9,000 square feet are probably too much for the three diplomats rattling around inside, watching Baghdad TV or al-Jazeera via satellite. A written appeal to the State Department to increase the number of diplomats to five to keep pace with the workload was rejected.
Iraqi diplomats are restricted to a 25-mile radius from the mission, except with written approval from the State Department. Douri diplomatically offers that the Polish diplomat in charge of the U.S. Interests Section in Baghdad also needs permission to travel outside Baghdad. But he noted: "The Polish counterpart in Baghdad does not have the same problem. He does not have an American community to worry about."
He also observed: "You call this a relationship? I feel upset at times. You hope the war will never take place and that wisdom and logic will prevail. In other words, don't fight me if there is a way to avoid it."
Early this year, the travel restriction was tightened to within the Beltway, forcing Douri and his family to move from their McLean house to an apartment in Falls Church. The measure was lifted three months later.
"Still, this has been a good experience," Douri said. "I have learned a lot about ways to do my job, even if there are difficulties."