On rough road to stability, Bremer focuses on progress

Posted in Iraq | 22-Mar-04 | Author: Dexter Filkins| Source: The New York Times

Administrator of Iraq: A turbulent 10 months

BAGHDAD - For L. Paul Bremer 3rd, the chief American administrator here, the contradictions of Iraq seemed to crystallize in a single moment earlier this month.

In a hastily called public appearance, Bremer stood at a podium looking grim and ashen-faced, there to denounce a horrific wave of attacks that had killed more than 150 Iraqi civilians on one of the highest Shiite holidays.

That same day, Iraqi leaders canceled a ceremony to commemorate Bremer's most significant achievement to date: the completion of an interim constitution designed to chart the country's path to democratic rule.

But instead of bestowing accolades on Iraqi leaders, Bremer could offer only condolences to the dead.

"Tuesday showed the dark vision of the evildoers," he said, his voice shaking with anger. "They fight to ward off harmony and are happy to pave the road to power with the corpses of their innocent victims."

With that, he walked off the stage.

In the 10 months since Bremer became the U.S.-appointed ruler of Iraq, much of his tenure has been like that: full of impressive achievements, along with some decisions that have been roundly criticized, as he has tried to control a restless country.

His early decision to disband Saddam Hussein's army preceded a wave of instability that caused much resentment of the Americans for occupying Iraq without protecting the population. At the same time, Bremer has had to contend with religious and ethnic passions that have thwarted much of the Americans' original timetable.

Ultimately, criticism of his decisions will matter little if the new Iraqi state stands on its own after Iraqi sovereignty is restored on July 1.

Since May, Bremer has guided a multibillion-dollar reconstruction campaign that has restored many public facilities, like telephone lines and electrical grids, which were stripped bare by the looting that engulfed the country after the collapse of Saddam's government. Bremer has put in place a vast security apparatus, made up of about 200,000 Iraqi police officers, soldiers and border guards, designed ultimately to replace the more than 100,000 American soldiers trying to crush the guerrilla and terrorist campaigns still roiling the cities and countryside.

Most ambitious of all, Bremer has spearheaded the Bush administration's plan to implant a democratic system here, a blueprint that includes nationwide elections, a federal constitution and the rapid transfer of sovereignty to the Iraqi people. To accomplish that, Bremer and his team have set up more than 250 city councils across the country and are rapidly preparing the central government to take over when the American occupation officially ends on June 30. And that, finally, will be the measure of his success or failure: whether the institutions he has tried to implant here - at the accelerated pace he demanded - sink or swim.

Bremer, a polished diplomat who does not want for self-assurance, says the desire for democracy that he sees in the eyes of ordinary Iraqis will prevail over the efforts of those who are trying to destroy it. Success, he says, is much more likely than the nightmare scenario, talked about by many Iraqis, of terrorism and civil war, an area where the American military, not Bremer, has responsibility.

"I think the chances are very slim," Bremer said of the chances for disaster, when he made public remarks on Friday to observe the anniversary of the start of the war. "You can always play 'what if.' I just don't think it's going to happen. This country is very different from 12 months ago."

As the man who replaced Saddam, Bremer looms large over this occupied land. Dressed impeccably despite the insurgency raging around him, Bremer is regarded by many Iraqis as earnest and hard-working, as the benevolent despot they never had.

In January, when the Americans began replacing the old Iraqi currency, known here as "Saddam money," the face of the deposed Iraqi leader was removed from the new notes. Saddam's face was replaced by a date palm, but Iraqis quickly gave the currency a new name: "Bremer money."

Bremer also receives letters, like the one from Ali Bressem, an Iraqi villager who has been searching for a year to find a way to help his 12-year-old son. The boy's face was scorched by an American cluster bomb at the beginning of the war. One day, Bressem went to a computer shop and had a man type the following: "Dear Mr. Bremer," the letter began. "Please accept our gratitude. During the last war of liberating Iraq, my house was exposed to a bombing. What is worse is that my son Ayad was exposed to a very severe injury in his eyes and face. We need help. We have no one to resort to but your excellency."

Bressem, a date farmer in the southern town of Kifil, recently took a bus to Baghdad, looking for Bremer's driver. "If I could find his driver," Bressem said, "he could take my letter to Bremer." But when he got to the heavily protected area known as the green zone, he said, soldiers shooed him away.

In the green zone itself, Bremer has inspired something of a fad.

His one sartorial concession to the war zone is a pair of combat boots, usually worn with a wool blazer, silk tie and white handkerchief. Many American officials in the zone now wear combat boots with their suits and ties; so, too, when he visits, does Bremer's boss, Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld.

Summing up his accomplishments here, Bremer reminds his questioners that he did not create the disaster that befell Baghdad and much of Iraq in the anarchical days that followed the collapse of Saddam's government. He was merely asked to clean it up.

"As I drove in from the airport, Baghdad was on fire - literally," Bremer said. "There was no traffic in the streets. There was not a single policeman on duty anywhere in the country. There was no electricity anywhere in the country. There was no economic activity anywhere."

When he gazes out on Iraq today, Bremer sees a country where a measure of law and order has been restored, where economic growth has resumed, where the basic elements of a modern society have largely returned to what they were before the war. Oil production, the country's fountain of wealth, has returned to its prewar levels. There is a constitution, signed by the Iraqis, that provides for individual rights. Iraq is now poised, Bremer says, to enter a period of rapid growth and development prosperity.

"So when I look at where we have arrived from where we started, it is an astonishing record," he said.

Americans and Iraqis who work closely with Bremer praise him for his drive and his ability to grapple with the entire range of Iraq's problems. To many Iraqi leaders, his finest moment came with the completion of the Iraqi interim constitution, an effort that succeeded in securing the assent of all 25 members of the Iraqi Governing Council and reconciling the desires of Iraq's tapestry of ethnic and religious groups.

The agreement on the constitution was reached after days of intricate bargaining, which Iraqi leaders say Bremer shepherded at almost every step. When the Iraqis hit a snag around midnight on Feb. 28, the deadline they had set for themselves, Bremer proved decisive in breaking the deadlock.

But while few doubt Bremer's commitment, some Iraqis say that in his drive to impose his vision on the nation, he has sometimes failed to listen and, as a result, has made serious mistakes.

The most widely criticized of his decisions was one he made before he had even arrived. On the plane to Iraq, Bremer decided to disband the 400,000-man Iraqi Army, which left thousands of trained soldiers unemployed. American officials say that many of those former soldiers later formed the backbone of the guerrilla resistance to the American occupation. Despite the criticism, Bremer stands by the decision, saying there was no Iraqi Army left to deal with anyway.

Other pitfalls have marked Bremer's tenure here, many of them turning into political embarrassments. According to administration officials, Bremer assured officials in Washington last autumn that he could persuade Iraqi leaders to accept the presence of Turkish troops in the country. Instead, the Iraqis, deeply suspicious of Turkish motives, rebelled, forcing the Bush administration and the Turks to back off.

Like many Americans and Iraqis, Bremer also seemed to underestimate the political power of Iraq's Shiite majority, and in particular, of the religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Shiite leaders say they warned Bremer last autumn when he presented them with a plan that called for caucus-style gatherings as the primary means for choosing a national assembly.

When Bremer persisted, Sistani declared his opposition and sent thousands of Iraqis into the streets. The caucus plan was abandoned.

"Bremer has a personality type which is domineering, determined and decisive," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council. "He makes decisions on the run. Most of the time, they are the right decisions. But sometimes, when he needs to listen, he makes a bad decision."