BAGHDAD – Whenever I hear a boom in Baghdad, it's hard to tell: bombs or construction? On the afternoon of March 29, I was eating lunch in the office, watching the Arab League summit live on Iraqi state TV, when the air concussed with a muffled THOOMP, as though a backhoe had dropped a boulder a couple blocks away -- or an explosive had detonated somewhere across town.
My Iraqi colleagues always know which sound is which, but I haven't yet developed the ear. Unfortunately, none of them were at work, because the city had been choked to a halt by the 100,000 soldiers providing security for the summit. Nor could I call anyone to find out what had happened, because the cell towers had been switched off -- presumably to thwart phone-activated IEDs. I jogged up to the roof and surveyed the horizon, but couldn't see any smoke. The Internet was still working, though, and I soon found my answer on Twitter: Mortars had hit near the Iranian embassy, close to the Green Zone where the summit was being held. No casualties reported.
The attack was the only stain on what was otherwise a banner day for Iraq. All diplomacy is infused with an element of performance, and Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki succeeded at enlisting his colleagues in the Arab League to participate in an elaborate spectacle. The government spent more than half a billion dollars on security and luxury accommodations, Maliki later confirmed, and the result was an alternate version of Baghdad -- a zone of safety and comfort that a foreign dignitary would be willing to inhabit, and could credibly praise. The triumph was a feat of stagecraft.
"It was an impossible dream to meet you here in Baghdad," Maliki told the assembled leaders. "Until three years ago, Baghdad was a city of ghosts, its neighborhoods isolated, its universities closed, its streets empty, and its hospitals filled with martyrs and the wounded."
"The Impossible Dream" would have been an apt motto for the summit. Just by putting on the event, Iraq has demonstrated some organizational and diplomatic chops that were unimaginable a few years ago. In all, 10 heads of state arrived, out of 20 countries represented at the summit -- their presence signaled Iraq's reemergence as a sovereign nation with regional clout. Finally, Iraqi leaders could proclaim an end to the days when their country was little more than a chaotic theater for proxy battles among its neighbors.
My own journey into the summit's unreality began on Monday evening, as I began my quest to pick up press credentials. I had submitted accreditation paperwork weeks before, but, like most of my fellow journalists, my badge was nowhere to be found. This was a source of some distress: Ask any journalist in Iraq, and they'll tell you there's nothing like a good badge. At the city's ubiquitous checkpoints, you flash the right badge and Iraqi soldiers wave you through; without one, maybe you get hassled or turned around. Badges mean access.
A friendly contact in the government assigned two men to help me get my summit badge. One was a mid-level Foreign Ministry official; the other was "from Maliki's office," which I understood to mean he was an intelligence officer. They led me to a black Hyundai sedan, and the Foreign Ministry guy got behind the wheel.