About the Auhor: Sean McCormack serves as the Department Spokesman and Assistant Secretary for Public Affairs.
The two hour ride on the C-17 aircraft from Turkey into Baghdad was relaxed and uneventful. Shortly after we leveled off in flight, Secretary Rice came down from the flight deck to speak with the 13 reporters traveling with us for a short briefing to set up our four-hour (scheduled) trip to Baghdad. If you've ever been inside a C-17 in flight you'll know that it can be a bit hard to hear over the engine noise, but the reporters huddled around her in a tight enough circle so that they could all hear one another. After about 10 minutes with journalists, she went back up to the flight deck, and the journalists could be seen typing furiously on their laptops with digital recorders to their ears.
Landing at Baghdad International Airport (BIAP) was uneventful. But as soon as you emerged from the air-conditioned aircraft, the dry heat of Baghdad hit you between the eyes. We all quickly donned body armor (me over suit and tie -- not the best look) and helmet on our way to the waiting formation of Blackhawk helicopters, rotor blades whirring. We strapped in to the four-point harnesses for the short flight to the international zone ("Green Zone"), landing a few minutes later. With the windows open, body armor velcroed, and helmets strapped on we experienced Baghdad by air. I've made the same trip many times, but it was one of the first times that I had no anxiety about the flight, far different than flying the same route just a year ago. Looking down on Baghdad, I'm struck by how normal life on the street appears from the air. (I'll let others with time on the ground describe what they see). Kids are playing soccer, people are shopping in the market, cars are gassing up, laundry flutters from clotheslines.
As for the business of the trip, Secretary Rice is here to talk with Prime Minister Maliki about a Status of Forces Agreement and another strategic political agreement that, together, will serve a a set of guidelines for the evolving U.S.-Iraqi relationship in all its aspects, security, political, economic, and cultural. Negotiators have made a great deal of progress, but there are some end-game issues that require the attention of senior leadership. We'll see what progress she can make with the Prime Minister in nailing down an agreement.
From Baghdad, we leave for home via Turkey and Shannon airport only to leave again Sunday night for Jerusalem to discuss an entirely different set of issues.