Thursday, June 08, 2006

"Today is a Good Day for Iraq"

I'm exhausted after a long day. But I would gladly suffer this kind of fatigue in return for another 281 days as good as this one. The following are some thoughts and observations from what was obviously a hugely important day for Iraq:

- First, before anybody asks, no, I had nothing to do with the attack, and I won't be seeing any of the $25 million reward. (More on the reward later).

- A little before 1000, the Ambassador calls me into his office. He wants to put out a statement about the death of an Al Qaeda operative, although I don't catch the name, if he says it all. He quickly goes over a few key points to emphasize, and I rush back to my desk to crank something out. One of the Ambassador's aides tells me I have about 20 minutes to write the statement, which is unusual, given that these products usually have a much looser timeline.

- I draft the remarks, and when I go back to show the Ambassador what I'd written, I'm embarrassed that I've forgotten the terrorist's name already. So I ask another aide how to spell the operative's name, and after a moment's hesitation, she simply writes down "AMZ" (Abu Musab al-Zarqawi) on a sticky note. This is how I find out about the killing of the most important figure in the Iraqi insurgency, and perhaps the most important terrorist in the world.

- Fast forward to an hour-and-a-half later. I am watching al Iraqiya, the state-run television network in Iraq. (One of the under reported success stories in Iraq is the explosion of independent media outlets since the fall of Saddam. There are currently 44 commercial television stations in Iraq, compared to ZERO before the war). At about 1145, they interrupt an Iraqi cooking show that, as far as I can tell, was providing recipes for tabouli and some kind of rice dish. Suddenly the screen is filled with a bright orange scroll across the bottom, with Arabic script running from left-to-right. Images of Iraqi men and women dancing in groups fills the screen, interspersed with shots of Iraqi landmarks. An Iraqi friend tells me this is simply stock footage of Shi'a tribesmen celebrating that is pulled out whenever there is news to be celebrated. (This kills me for some reason. Imagine FOX News announcing that President Bush had won the election in 2004 by showing scenes of Republicans celebrating Nixon's election in 1972!)

- Al Iraqiya cuts from the news scroll/celebration montage to the press conference taking place at Prime Minister Maliki's office across the Green Zone. PM Maliki is flanked by Ambassador Khalilzad and General Casey. When Maliki announces the news of Zarqawi's death, the Iraqi reporters breakout into loud cheers and applause. Women can be heard ulating, and after about 15 seconds the applause becomes rhythmic and celebratory. Richard Engel, of NBC, later tells the Ambassador "When they made the announcement, with the cheers, the flavor was the same as with the capture of Saddam Hussein."

- I switch over to BBC International so I can hear the translation of Maliki's remarks. He concludes by saying, "We have put an end to Zarqawi." Whether that means the same in Arabic or was a product of the translation, it is a nice bit of phrasing.

- The Ambassador reads the statement we drafted. General Casey follows, although his statement is drowned out by the voice of the Iraqi translating his remarks into Arabic for the reporters present. As they leave the podium, a reporter shouts to the Ambassador, "What does this mean for America?" The Ambassador continues walking, but gives him a big thumbs up with an ear-to-ear grin, and says, "Today is a good day for Iraq, but it is also a good day for the United States."

The irony of the Zarqawi killing is that it totally overshadowed what was supposed to be the big news of the day, the nomination and confirmation of Iraq's new Ministers of Defense and Interior, which complete the formation of the first national unity government in Iraqi history. Twenty minutes later, in a separate press conference at the Council of Representatives, PM Maliki introduces Abdul Khadr Jassim (Defense), Jawad al-Boulami (Interior), and Shirwan Waeli (Minister of State for National Security).

I spend much of the remainder of the day with Ambassador Khalilzad as he conducts a series of media interviews. Walking through the halls of the Palace, Iraqi nationals stop him to shake his hand and thank him. "I am happy now," one says. "Today is like a birthday," says another. Other Embassy officials stop by the office to tell us that their FSNs (Foreign Service Nationals) cried in happiness when they found out, and we also get reports of Iraqi police (a frequent target of Zarqawi's) dancing in the streets.

When I have more energy, I'll comment a bit on what Zarqawi's death means to the overall effort here in Iraq. For now, I just want to get some sleep, and bask in the glow of what the Ambassador described as "a good day for Iraq."