by Dal LaMagna
While in Baghdad, seeking ways to end the violence there, I met with General David Petraeus, the commanding general of the Coalition forces.
For the past few months with the help of a friend of mine who has
access to General Petreaus, the Commanding General of the Coalition
Forces in Iraq, I have been trying to facilitate a meeting between him
and Mohammed al-Dynee.
For reasons unknown to me at the time,
the General agreed to meet with us in Baghdad at 11:20 am last
Wednesday, the day we would arrive in Iraq. To make this meeting, we
needed to be on a plane in Amman at 7 am and hope it wasn’t delayed.
Mohammed and I disembarked from the plane and were ushered into a
private office that turned out to belong to the Airport Director. Right
away young male servants rushed in with tea, water and offerings of
candy. A large screen TV was on in the background, showing customized
Hummers and SUVs at a show in the Las Vegas Convention Centre. It
seemed rather bizarre to view Las Vegas from Baghdad.
After a half hour passed, I began to get antsy. It was 10:10 and our
meeting with the general was in little more than an hour. I started
complaining, so we got up and started moving out.
The minute I stepped out of the terminal, normal reality – at least
my version of it – disappeared. We weren’t going to be jumping into a
Instead, we walked over to the parking garage and watched as four
large SUVs pulled in. A security specialist stepped out of one and
offered us flak jackets. Mohammed refused his, but there was no way I
was going to refuse mine. I just wanted to know whether to put it on
over or under my sports coat.
“Your choice," I was told. I shrugged off the sports coat and put
on the flak jacket. It weighed a ton and I could barely breathe, so
the officer loosened it.
"Fill your lungs," he said. I did, and then he tightened it again. But this time when I exhaled, I was more comfortable.
We got into one of the SUVs. Former American soldier Stuart and
former Ukraine soldier Corey – now working as private security
contractors – loaded their guns and pistols. Stuart turned to us and
said, “If we run into action, I want you two to get down. This vehicle
is fully armored and unless we get a direct hit, while we might get
shook up, we will be okay. And do not leave the vehicle unless we pull
I wondered if this was the time I was supposed to begin worrying.
It was about a mile and a half from the terminal to the entrance to
the Green Zone. I felt as if I had dropped into a Mad Max movie. All
kinds of tanks and unusually outfitted vehicles where crossing over or
running on the road. Everything was heavily armored.
When we arrived in the International Zone (Green Zone), Stuart
turned to me and said, “Congratulations you have just successfully
passed through the ‘Irish Highway,’ presently the most dangerous road
in the world.”
Being escorted into the Zone with a Member of Parliament got us
reasonably quickly through endless checkpoints, but we barely made it
to the entrance of the Embassy in time for our meeting with General
Mary Kohler, General Petraeus' executive officer, met us at the gate
as planned. She told us an emergency had come up – which we later
discovered was the second bombing of the Golden Temple Mosque in
Samarra – and that General Petraeus had been called away. General
Newton would be meeting with us instead.
I conveyed my disappointment, but told her that I certainly
understood. I explained that we were also trying to get together with
Ambassador Margaret Scobey who was expecting us, and asked Mary if she
could help. I was startled by how helpful she wanted to be and in
fact, how helpful she was.
(As an aside in the story: People constantly complain here that
they are not able to get meetings with the decision makers who are
here. The reality, though, is that the decision makers work 18 or more
hours a day, running from crisis to crisis and they can never know if
they are available for a sit down even in the next hour. Exacerbating
that is the problem with communications. There is no Internet service
for us on the outside. Everyone communicates by cell phone. But
sometimes, they don’t work. So it is often difficult to get in touch
with people and see if meetings can occur. But, complaining about not
getting meetings helps nothing. Being prepared to meet when the
opportunity presents itself is what’s needed.)
Mary brought us in to the Embassy and gave us directions to the
offices of the schedulers for the various people we hoped to meet
with. Then, as we were walking to our meeting with General Newton,
which had expanded into a meeting with General Lamb as well,
opportunity presented itself and General Petraeus with a group of
soldiers walked by.
“General,” I called out. He stopped. I introduced Mohammed and myself.
Our stand-up meeting lasted about 15 minutes. The General has requested that what we discussed be off the record.
I’ve been asked what I thought about the General from our brief
meeting. You should know that since last August, when I first became
active as a “citizen diplomat,” I have heard from Iraqis I’ve met that
General Petraeus is highly respected. Having met him myself I can
understand why. He is very direct, personable, and one gets the sense
that he is truthful. The fact that his Executive Officer was so
helpful to us also reflects his personal style. He is not dismissive
and is willing constantly to “show up” to work toward finding some
solution. He means what he says and says what he means. For the kind
of work I’m trying to do, this is enormously helpful. We don’t have to
consume endless hours discussing what he might have meant by what he
said because he says it clearly and forthrightly the first time around.
On Monday, I’ll report on our hour-plus long meeting with Generals Lamb and Newton.