MEMPHIS – Iraqis visiting on a civil rights tour here were barred from city hall, with the city council chairman saying it was too dangerous to let them in.
The seven Iraqi civic and community leaders are in the midst of a three-week American tour, sponsored by the State Department (search) to learn more about the process of government. The trip also includes stops in Washington, Los Angeles and Chicago.
But they didn't exactly receive the red carpet treatment in Memphis.
First, the group wasn't picked up at the airport Sunday as scheduled and had to take taxis. And a planned visit to the National Civil Rights Museum (search) on Monday was postponed because a Hollywood film was in production there.
Then came the flap at city hall.
The Iraqis were scheduled to meet with city council member Carol Chumney, a meeting that had to be moved at the last minute when council chair Joe Brown — who is black — objected to letting them in because they might be dangerous.
Elisabeth Silverman, the group's host and head of the Memphis Council for International Visitors (search), said Brown told her he would "evacuate the building and bring in the bomb squads" if the group entered.
Brown said he was just concerned about the safety of the delegation and the people in City Hall.
"We don't know exactly what's going on. Who knows about the delegation, and has the FBI been informed?" Brown said. "It was about the facility. That's the bottom line. We must secure and protect all the employees in that building."
The group stood outside, waiting for a ride to the new meeting place.
"They are in charge of setting up processes in their country. They have to educate themselves about how it works in this country," Silverman said. "They are [also] looking at how people emerge out of an era when there has not been any civil rights."
The city mayor said he never got a request from the group, while the county mayor sent the Iraqis a note saying he was too busy to meet them.
"There are a lot of little things that have not gone right with this program," Silverman said.
But the delegates seemed in good spirits Monday, after they were able meet with Chumney. The delegation took numerous notes and asked several questions, mostly through three translators.
Shahla Waliy, a 31-year-old native of Baghdad, was intrigued by the city's civil rights struggle.
"I heard there was a kind of majority-minority conflict in Memphis, especially in history," she said. "We have these smaller provinces, and we have majority-minority conflicts in these places."