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HEIDELBERG, Germany — For a few days every autumn for the past 14 years, a hotel here has seen a gathering of men with a blinding array of medals and boots so shiny you could shave in their reflection.

And that’s just the security.

Each October, Army generals and their subordinates from the U.S. and throughout Europe get together for the Conference of European Armies, and in well-appointed rooms at the Hotel Europa talk about the weighty matters that define their jobs.

To say security is tight would be an understatement.

To avoid car bombs, U.S. Army Europe rents out the entire parking garage beneath the hotel, closing it to the public. Hotel guests undergo background checks months in advance. Walk-ins are not welcome.

“Can I check in?” a reporter asked hours before the generals began to arrive. “No,” the desk clerk said.

“Can I have a drink in the bar?”

“You can have a drink for 10 minutes,” he said.

There is much to be concerned about. This year, conference organizers said, 54 top military officers from 38 countries attended. Army Chief of Staff Peter Schoomaker; U.S. Army Europe commander Gen. David McKiernan; Lt. Gen. Peter Chiarelli, commander of Multi-National Corps-Iraq, who flew in from Baghdad; and numerous European army generals — chiefs of staff, chiefs of defense — all gathered in one spot. Each year, security officials worry more.

According to USAREUR’s Operations and Plans Department (G-3), the conference organizer, all European army commanders — except Belarus, whose president is often called “Europe’s last dictator” — are invited, along with the U.S. and Canada.

This year’s conference cost was $270,000, G-3 staffers wrote in an e-mail.

The benefit, they said, although “not immediately apparent,” was improved international relations. “The relationships developed and the issues discussed … [are] immeasurable,” they wrote.

One example of a benefit from this year’s conference was Chiarelli’s ability to talk directly to European generals about Iraq issues affecting their armies, hear their ideas and implement agreed-upon actions in Iraq.

Another was the opportunity for Serbian, Bosnian and Croatian commanders — bitter adversaries just a decade ago — to meet and talk. They were “huddled around a table in deep, cooperative conversation,” the G-3 wrote.

Despite its importance, no news reporters are allowed. Commanders are supposed to have candid discussions about timely military matters and foster close personal relationships. Reporters could hinder that, the G-3 wrote.

One journalist was there — Thomas L. Friedman, two-time Pulitzer Prize-winning columnist for The New York Times — and an academic, Michael O’Hanlon from the Brookings Institution. Both were there as speakers.

Friedman, who supported the Iraq invasion but has been critical of the way the war has been prosecuted, did not respond to an e-mail asking what he talked about. But in his last column about Iraq, published a few days before the conference, he wrote:

“Iraq, under our nose, is breaking apart into so many little pieces that no political solution seems to be in the offing, because no Iraqi leader can deliver his faction anymore — and there does not seem to be an Iraqi center capable of coming together.”

O’Hanlon also declined to describe his talk, other than to say that it reflected his recent writings on Iraq, and he said in an e-mail, “I found the attention given to my ideas serious and sober.”

In January, 2005, O’Hanlon called the postinvasion phase of the Iraq mission the least well-planned American military mission since Somalia in 1993, if not Lebanon in 1983.

The national consequences, he said, are worse “than any set of military mistakes since Vietnam.”

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Nancy is an Italy-based reporter for Stars and Stripes who writes about military health, legal and social issues. An upstate New York native who served three years in the U.S. Army before graduating from the University of Arizona, she previously worked at The Anchorage Daily News and The Seattle Times. Over her nearly 40-year journalism career she’s won several regional and national awards for her stories and was part of a newsroom-wide team at the Anchorage Daily News that was awarded the 1989 Pulitzer Prize for Public Service.
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