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Why Condi Rice slept on the floor

By Elise Labott
U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice and British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw share a laugh in Baghdad.


Editor's note: In our Behind the Scenes series, CNN correspondents share their experiences covering news around the world.


Behind the Scenes
Condoleezza Rice
Jack Straw

WASHINGTON (CNN) -- U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice has always been a Beatles fan.

So when she accepted an invitation from British Foreign Secretary Jack Straw to visit his hometown of Blackburn, England, she told reporters she was looking forward to learning the meaning of the Fab Four tune "A Day in the Life" with its line about "4,000 holes in Blackburn, Lancashire."

Asked to sing it last week on the field of Blackburn's soccer stadium, she responded with the chorus of "Sgt. Pepper's Lonely Hearts Club Band."

Straw was able to lend a hand and explained the Blackburn reference. Apparently, John Lennon penned the words after being captivated by a Daily Mail article that 4,000 potholes needed to be filled there.

Just another stop on the Condi-Jack road show, a five-day, sleepless "Magical Mystery Tour" that took the pair across Europe and the Middle East, starting March 30.

She and Straw even went to a concert at a school that Paul McCartney once attended.

But protests over the war in Iraq and U.S. policy toward Muslims dominated news coverage.

Blackburn's population is 20 percent Muslim, and the community felt Straw's invitation to Rice in the face of such opposition to U.S. policy was an insensitive slap in the face.

Serious business and light moments mixed throughout Rice and Straw's tour, culminating in a secret trip to Iraq to push the Iraqis toward taking more control of their security and country.

The personal friendship between the two was cemented in October when Rice invited Straw for a tour of her native Alabama. Straw returned the favor, and they spent the weekend bouncing back and forth between Liverpool and his parliamentary district of Blackburn.

Straw sounded the same grand themes as Rice about how the United States and Britain outgrew the shame of slavery to develop to the kinds of democracies they now promote in the Middle East. Rice emulated Straw's plain-speaking style and acknowledged the frustration of Americans as the war has dragged on in Iraq.

They attended a reception Sunday night in Liverpool, the birthplace of the Beatles, but only their staffs and those in Rice's traveling press pool knew they were leaving that night on a secret mission to Baghdad. Straw slipped onto Rice's plane through the back entrance, away from the glare of television cameras.

On the overnight flight to Baghdad, Rice offered her guest the bed in her personal cabin. Straw awoke in horror to learn the secretary of state had slept on the floor in the aisle outside the cabin.

Flying from Kuwait, we arrived in Baghdad on Sunday morning in torrential rains on a C-17 military transport plane. The weather forced us to take a motorcade of armored cars to the highly fortified Green Zone via one of the deadliest stretches of Iraq, where car bombs and kidnappings are an almost daily occurrence.

Rice and Straw spent the next two days meeting Sunni, Shiite and Kurdish leaders, urging them to end their bickering and form a national unity government quickly.

Despite the seriousness of the task in Iraq, there were lighthearted moments.

Describing the importance of establishing a national unity government, Straw said, "We've got to be able to deal with Mr. A, Mr. B or Mr. C. We can't deal with Mr. Nobody.'"

Smiling, Rice caught the eye of female reporters before directing a good-natured dig at Straw.

"Jack, I'm sure we'd be all right with Miss A or Miss B or Miss C, too, right?"

As reporters burst out laughing, Straw tried to recover, saying he "was not being gender specific, just reaffirming the realities on the ground."

"Don't report me please," he said.

But Rice, mentioned as a 2008 presidential contender despite her insistence she isn't interested, didn't miss a beat. "Who knows?" Rice suggested about the possibility of a woman leading Iraq. "Let's leave it open."

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