US public affairs operation in Iraq all but closed down

WASHINGTON - Journalists and government officials complained last week that the Bush administration has virtually abandoned its public affairs operation in Baghdad.

Moroccan ambassador Margaret Tutwiler was sent to oversee the operation in April after major hostilities ended. But according to administration sources, she returned to Morocco within a month.

Department of Justice press secretary Mark Corallo arrived in May to handle day-to-day press duties, but stayed just a week after being told by Tutwiler there was no role for him. Now back in Washington, Corallo confirmed the length of his stay in Iraq, but declined further comment.

White House communications aide Dan Senor is now overseeing the operation in Iraq.

An administration source close to the situation said Tutwiler chose to send Corallo home and forgo daily briefings because "the operation had no real hard [phone] lines, not enough computers, and they were stuck behind the walls of the Republican Palace, whereas reporters were running around Baghdad with better communications equipment and more accurate information. It would have been a daily embarrassment to try and hold briefings."

Michael Weisskopf of Time magazine, who recently returned from Baghdad, characterised the public affairs office as barely functional. "They had a couple of satellite phone numbers that were rarely answered," he said. "It was rare to get someone's email address. Once I got to the building supposedly where the press operation was, but I couldn't get in. I had to deal with a messenger they sent outside to ask what I wanted."

"There was no access to senior members," said Washington Post staff writer Peter Slevin. "Many reporters were frustrated that there was no daily access to information, but there were people in the government operation who were equally frustrated. They were given satellite phones that didn't work inside the palace where they were stationed."

State Department spokesman Rob Tappan said Senor is rectifying the situation. "I understand he meets with reporters regularly for one-on-one background briefings, and I think there's a conscious decision to provide press briefings on an as-needed basis," he said.

A Pentagon spokeswoman said there was a briefing last Wednesday, though she would not comment further, referring any further questions to a (non-working) phone number in Baghdad.

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