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Tuesday, February 10

U.S. governors tour Baghdad

By Greg Hahn | The (Boise) Idaho Statesman

BAGHDAD Six U.S. governors were whisked through the streets of the Iraqi capital Tuesday in a two-day visit kept secret until the first day was halfway over.

The trip has been in the works since before Christmas, but Iraq was only just deemed safe enough to risk bringing the governors to meet the troops and learn about the country's struggling new economy. The governors will also meet with emerging leaders in what the United States hopes will be a country on its way to a democracy by June 30.

The group met with Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of the ground troops in Iraq, and other top officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority's headquarters, once Saddam Hussein's grand Republican Palace. The governors also sat down with Paul Bremer, the top American official in the country.

They met Iraqi business owners in a growing retail center in downtown Baghdad, and toured a factory on the outskirts of town that made ice cream and the plastic containers and Styrofoam coolers it goes in.

Idaho Gov. Dirk Kempthorne, chairman of the National Governors Association, led the delegation that included New York Gov. George Pataki, Minnesota Gov. Tim Pawlenty, Oregon Gov. Ted Kulongoski, Hawaii Gov. Linda Lingle and Louisiana Gov. Kathleen Blanco.

At the moment, the businessmen who met the governors Tuesday said they just want the lights to stay on all day long.

"The main problem is the electricity," factory chief Walid Haussain said, as the governors, a few reporters and swarms of armed soldiers converged on his Styrofoam plant.

At least in these open-market friendly sections of Iraq, Kempthorne and the other American governors were treated warmly. The motorcade, which traveled with several Humvees and helicopters, attracted a crowd in the Karkh District, where the governors visited Saad Yaakoob's fabric store and one of the city's burgeoning electronics outlets.

Through an interpreter, Yaakoob said he understood that American sons had been sacrificed along with Iraqi sons for the people here, but he said the goals still hadn't been met. He did say, though, that he appreciated the new freedoms of speech the Americans brought to Iraq.

"He can complain about his government just like my citizens can complain about us," Pataki joked.

There seems to be a timid optimism coming from a few of the Iraqis that the governors have talked to so far.

Yaakoob mixed a metaphor when talking to the governors (the visit was a surprise to him, too), but perhaps he sums up the feeling.

"We didn't used to see the green light at the end of the tunnel," he said. "Now we do."

And so far, the trip has been fast, hectic and surreal.

The flight in (no visiting dignitaries sleep "in-country") was on a C-130 built for moving troops and cargo, and the drop into Baghdad International Airport (called BIAP, or "buy-op" by the troops) was fast and steep. Kempthorne sat up front with the crew for the drop.

The governors have driven past a few of Saddam's palaces, and spent a few minutes at the grand and gruesome Crossed Swords parade grounds, an amphitheater flanked with giant statues of Saddam's arms with swords and piles of helmets worn by Iranian solders from the Iran-Iraq war.

The trip comes at an intriguing time in Iraq. Just a couple of days ago, a delegation from the United Nations arrived to evaluate the plan to create a democratic system in Iraq, and at about the same time, Japanese forces arrived to aid in the reconstruction. Japan has not fired a shot in combat since 1945, and the move is historic.

One of the biggest questions at the moment is how to elect the new Iraq government. The U.S. plan calls for regional caucuses, but some of Iraq's religious leaders have called for direct elections. The network of Shiite Muslims is said to be strong and conservative, and the difference could mean a more fundamentalist Islam government than the United States would want.

That's one of the differences the United Nations is working to resolve now. U.S. leaders have said they are open to new ideas, but they're sticking to the goal of returning the country to home rule by June 30. Secretary of State Colin Powell reiterated that on Friday.