He later told me that the room filled with smoke and dust and he understood that the situation was grave. He said the floor shook beneath him, and that this is the first time anything like this has happened to him. He didn't know if it was personally aimed at him, but he said he saw the violence in Iraq with his own eyes, and it was frightening.
This experience led Ban to an initial insight: If before setting out on his tour he had examined the option of reinforcing UN troops in Iraq, after leaving the smoke-filled room he wasn't quite sure that this was the right thing to do. Although he does not criticize the American presence in Iraq, he has made it understood that the troops should be withdrawn.
The new secretary general's first stop was supposed to be Cairo, but only upon reaching Egypt it became apparent that he had decided to pay a secret visit to Baghdad first. The impression is that Ban is taking his Mideast tour seriously and that he has many good intentions and plans to become an influential mediator.
The problem is that Ban's biography does not include a single detail that qualifies him for the assignment at hand in the Middle East. He comes from a different background and culture, and before taking up the secretary general's office he was primarily involved in East Asian politics. The vicissitudes of our region are unfamiliar to him.
Against this backdrop we can perhaps understand Ban and his delegation's astonishment when organizing their tour. They quickly discovered that in the Mideast a word is not a word, a meeting is not a meeting, and all plans are susceptible to change.
For example, after his meeting with Hosni Mubarak in Cairo Saturday, Ban's aides promised journalists a joint press conference. Only when the meeting ended it became apparent that Mubarak had no such intentions and Ban found himself facing the press alongside the Egyptian foreign minister.
Ban tried to convey restraint and moderation but later in the day he found himself ill at ease when the Arab league secretary general spoke harshly about Israel. The impression was that he was trying to tread carefully, but this time there were mines in the way.
Elbows and fists needed
On Sunday, Ban is set to meet with Palestinian Authority Chairman Mahmoud Abbas but it is still unclear whether he will be meeting with Prime Minister Ismail Haniyeh. When asked whether he would agree to meet a Hamas representative, he said he will meet the Palestinian government's finance minister, but that his schedule has not yet been finalized and he doesn't know who else he will meet
On Monday, Ban is scheduled to meet with Prime Minister Ehud Olmert, with the foreign and defense ministers, and with the Knesset speaker.
Later he will set out to meet the Jordanian king in Amman and from there he will continue to Riyadh to speak before participants of the Arab League summit. From Riyadh he will fly to Lebanon to see from up close how UN Security Council Resolution 1701 is being implemented and he will try to glean some information as to the fate of abducted IDF soldiers Regev and Goldwasser.
Egyptian sources in Cairo hinted Saturday that prior to the summit in Riyadh they plan to conclude the deal to release abducted IDF soldier Gilad Shalit. When I asked the UN secretary general about this he said they were working very hard on this and are hopeful.
It appears that after just two days in the Mideast a little of the optimism that accompanied Ban and his delegation when they first set out on their voyage has already dissipated. The UN secretary general has many creative ideas, but it seems as though he is beginning to understand that it is more complicated than he had estimated.