Correction appended: May 19, 2008
The arrival of House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, who came to Baghdad on Saturday with a congressional delegation, set off a now-familiar cycle of reaction in the Iraqi capital. First there was buzz around the city about flight delays from Baghdad International Airport, which goes into lockdown when VIPs land or takeoff. Since no dust storms were grounding flights, anyone traveling could have assumed some American bigwig was heading in. But when local TV reported the visitor was House Speaker Nancy Pelosi, there was a collective shrug of the kind you might expect from Republicans catching a glimpse of her somewhere in McCain country.
Pelosi is something of a nonentity to average Iraqis. If they know who she is at all, she is generally seen as an antiwar caricature figure, someone whose views on U.S. troop withdrawals are widely considered unrealistic. Pelosi has said she wants to begin withdrawal of troops this year with a goal for the U.S to be out of Iraq by the end of 2009. It is a time frame virtually no Iraqi political leader sees as feasible. Not even Mahdi Army militia leader Moqtada al-Sadr, the fiercest advocate of a U.S. withdrawal on the scene, has called for such a rapid withdrawal of U.S. forces.
The lack of popularity of Pelosi's views was evident in the fact that her first day on the ground Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki did not make an effort to see her. Maliki is currently in the northern city of Mosul overseeing a crackdown on insurgent networks there. But the city has been largely quiet in recent days, and there was no obvious pressing reason for the Prime Minister to skip Pelosi's arrival.
Pelosi may not get much more warmth from the American military leaders she plans to meet either. Pelosi argued against sending additional surge forces to Iraq, a plan overseen by Gen. David Petraeus that is now widely credited with reducing the levels of violence in Iraq.
But for all of Pelosi's unpopularity, in many ways she got a nicer arrival treatment than the last senior female American official to appear in Baghdad, Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice. Rice slipped into Iraq in January much the same way Pelosi did today stealthily, with a terse confirmation by the U.S. embassy offering few details of the agenda. But within hours of Rice's arrival, TV news was crackling with word of it, and soon thereafter a volley of mortars fell on the Green Zone in an obvious message from Rice's detractors. No rockets or mortars were heard heading into the Green Zone today as word of Pelosi's presence hit the Iraqi airwaves in what amounted to a daytime news blip.
How long Pelosi plans to stay in Iraq remains unclear. But she may consider herself lucky if the rest of her time in Iraq was as uneventful as today.
The original version of this story said that Pelosi wanted American troops withdrawn by the end of 2008. In fact, she supports a withdrawal beginning in 2008 and reaching completion at the end of 2009. The original story also said that Pelosi accused the U.S. of torturing detainees in Iraq. She has not made that claim.