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Iraqi Delegation's Experience in Memphis Puts Kibosh on Local Press Coverage

By Susan Reines
Staff Writer

August 7 -- After being barred from a Tennessee city hall a few days earlier because a City Council chairman feared a bombing, a visiting Iraqi delegation decided not to allow the press to sit in on their meeting with Santa Monica City officials Thursday afternoon.

The delegation eventually relented, but would not permit individual interviews or photographs, because of safety concerns in their own country.

The visiting group of Iraqi mayors, governors, political party chairmen, and ministry officials is touring America for three weeks to see democracy in action as part of the U.S. State Department's International Visitors Program.

But what the group has apparently learned about most so far is the power of the press.

The City Council of Memphis, Tennessee -- given the opportunity to teach the politicians from the long-oppressed nation about democratic governance -- barred the delegation from entering Memphis City Hall, with Chairman Joe Brown reportedly saying he would "evacuate the building and bring in the bomb squads" if they entered, according to press reports.

To make matters worse, media also reported that some of the dignitaries were mugged in Memphis later in their visit, although officials were not available to confirm that.

The resulting national media attention caused the group to become “overly cautious” about media coverage, said Shafia Mir, of the International Visitor’s Council of Los Angeles, which is coordinating the local visit.

The group decided to keep its actions and meetings as far from press and public view as possible, fearing that they could be subject to repercussions in their own country, according to the visitor’s council.

On Thursday, staffers at Santa Monica City Hall's human resources/information desk said they knew nothing about a visiting delegation minutes before the dignitaries piled out of a van and walked into the building.

Staff members from the city manager's office were prepared, though, and escorted the group into council chambers.

The dignitaries seemed in good spirits, snapping pictures of each other standing next to the mayor's chair and asking city staff members to pose with them in their photos.

The only elected Santa Monica official present was Council member Michael Feinstein, who had been asked by the Visitor's Council to host the Santa Monica leg of the trip.

Feinstein later escorted the group to Green Party headquarters for a private briefing which he said focused on the issue of third parties.

The press was allowed into the city hall gathering initially, but as soon as conversations began, an Iraqi translator said there could be no media coverage of the meeting and ordered reporters present to leave.

On Friday, Charles Moore, of the State Department, said the "no press" edict was at the request of the Iraqis and not a policy of his department.

"The group wanted no media and we have to respect that," Moore said.

After one reporter left, the group relented and allowed another reporter to sit in on what was called an "open forum" among the Iraqis and city officials.

Despite the efforts to keep the visit quiet and without incident, the Santa Monica excursion was not without one minor mishap -- Feinstein said that one of the vehicles assigned to the group got a parking ticket.

The group will visit Orange County and meet with Los Angeles city officials before leaving for the northern part of the state on Tuesday, according to Janet Elliott, executive director of the local Visitor's Council.
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