March 21, 2004

Bremer Pushes Iraq on Difficult Path to Self-Rule

By DEXTER FILKINS

New York Times

BAGHDAD, Iraq, March 20 — For L. Paul Bremer III, the chief American administrator here, the contradictions of Iraq seemed to crystallize in a single moment this month.

In a hastily called public appearance, Mr. Bremer, 62, stood at a podium, grim and ashen-faced, to denounce a horrific wave of attacks that had killed more than 150 Iraqi civilians this month on one of the highest Shiite holidays.

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

But instead of bestowing accolades on Iraqi leaders, Mr. 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 Mr. Bremer became the American-appointed proconsul of Iraq, much of his tenure has been like that: full of impressive achievements, clouded by the restless, divided nature of the country he is trying to oversee. Despite a widely admired work ethic, he has made a number of decisions that have been widely criticized and which appear to have undermined the very enterprise he is trying to move forward.

His early decision to disband Saddam Hussein's army, critics charge, created ready recruits for the insurgency and fueled resentment among Iraqis who fault the Americans for failing to protect them. Despite warnings of dissatisfaction with the American plan for the transfer, he failed to anticipate the political assertiveness of Iraq's Shiite majority.

Ultimately, criticism of his decisions will matter little if the new Iraqi state stands on its own after sovereignty is restored on July 1. The democratic institutions Mr. Bremer has helped create are sure to be tested in the months ahead, when American officials believe terrorists are planning major strikes against American and Iraqi targets.

Since May, Mr. Bremer has guided a multibillion-dollar reconstruction campaign that has restored many of the public facilities, like telephone lines and electrical grids, that had been stripped bare by looting that engulfed the country after the Hussein government collapsed. He has put in place a vast security apparatus, some 200,000 Iraqi police officers, soldiers and border guards, intended ultimately to replace more than 100,000 American soldiers trying to crush the guerrilla and terrorist campaigns still roiling the cities and countryside.

Most ambitious of all, Mr. 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, he 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 float.

Mr. Bremer, a polished diplomat who does not want for self-assurance, says the desire for democracy he sees in the eyes of Iraqis will prevail over the efforts of those who are trying to destroy it. Success, he says, is much more likely than the nightmare set of events feared by many Iraqis of terrorism and civil war. "I think the chances are very slim," he said of the likelihood of 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 Mr. Hussein, Mr. Bremer looms large over this occupied land. He is regarded by many Iraqis as earnest and hard-working, 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. Mr. Hussein's face was replaced by a date palm, but Iraqis quickly gave the currency a new name: "Bremer money."

Some Iraqis ask Mr. Bremer for personal help. Among them is Ali Bressem, a villager who has been searching for a year for a way to help his 12-year-old son. The boy's face was scorched by an American cluster bomb at the start of the war. One day, Mr. Bressem went to a computer shop and had a letter typed.

"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."

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

For Americans in the green zone, the impeccably dressed Mr. 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 now wear combat boots with suits and ties; so, too, when he visits, does Mr. Bremer's boss, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

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

"As I drove in from the airport, Baghdad was on fire, literally," Mr. 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, he 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, like electricity and running water and schools, 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, finally signed by the Iraqis, that provides for individual rights.

Iraq is now poised, Mr. Bremer says, to enter a period of rapid growth, development and prosperity. "So when I look at where we have arrived from where started, it is an astonishing record," he said.

Americans and Iraqis who work closely with him praise his drive and his ability to grapple with the range of Iraq's problems. To many Iraqi leaders, his finest moment came with the completion of the 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 was reached after days of intricate bargaining, which Iraqi leaders say Mr. Bremer shepherded at almost every step. When the Iraqis hit a snag around midnight on Feb. 29, the deadline they had set for themselves, Mr. Bremer proved decisive in breaking the deadlock. "It was past midnight, but Bremer said no one was going home," said Rozh Shawais, a senior leader in the Kurdish Democratic Party.

In fact, Mr. Bremer let the Iraqi leaders go home early that morning. They later returned, finally striking a deal at 4:20 the next morning. "Bremer was involved in every detail of the constitution," Mr. Shawais said.

But while few doubt Mr. Bremer's commitment, some Iraqis say that in his drive to impose his vision on the country, 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, he decided to disband the 400,000-man Iraqi Army, which left thousands of trained soldiers unemployed. American officials say many of those former soldiers later formed the backbone of the guerrilla resistance to the occupation.

Despite the criticism, Mr. Bremer stands by the decision, saying there was no Iraqi army left to deal with anyway. "I don't have any second thoughts about disbanding the army," he said. "Neither did the secretary of defense, and he's my boss."

Other pitfalls have marked Mr. Bremer's tenure here, many of them turning into political embarrassments. According to administration officials, Mr. Bremer assured officials in Washington last fall 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, Mr. Bremer also seemed to underestimate the political power of Iraq's Shiite majority, and in particular, of its religious leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani. Shiite leaders say they warned Mr. Bremer last fall when he presented them with a plan that called for caucus-style gatherings as the primary means for choosing a national assembly.

When Mr. Bremer persisted, Ayatollah 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 Dr. Mowaffak al-Rubaie, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and a neurologist. "He makes decisions on the run. Nine out of 10 times, he makes the right decision. But the 10th time, he makes the wrong one, and that's the really important issue."

Many Iraqi leaders have credited Mr. Bremer with helping transform the Governing Council from an unwieldy debating society into a functioning legislature. At the same time, some Iraqis say he has sometimes gone too far, dictating to the Iraqis what they must and must not do.

In February, with Iraqi leaders nearly finished writing their constitution, Mr. Bremer publicly threatened to veto any attempt to impose Islamic law. The statement enraged Shiite leaders, who say they were so angered by his threat that they inserted stronger terms regarding Islam than they had originally favored.

"When Mr. Bremer said that, we felt that Islam might be excluded," said Hamed al-Bayati, a senior leader of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a political party. "So we decided to strengthen the role of Islam."

What seems certain is that the next few months will be dangerous. American and Iraqi officials are bracing for new waves of suicide attacks, intended to turn the Iraqis against their would-be protectors.

On a visit to Al Kut, a city southeast of Baghdad, Mr. Bremer found mixed signs. The chairman of the provincial council, Abid Suleman al-Satar, told him that there was not enough time before June 30 to prepare for the transfer. The police were incompetent, Mr. Satar said, and he feared that some local political parties would take advantage of the instability. "We have to have a longer period of time," he told Mr. Bremer. "This is a very short time to ensure that the political process is good."

Mr. Bremer waved away the warnings. "People are going to have to learn faster," he told Mr. Satar. "Most Iraqis do not want elections to be delayed."

Later in the day, Mr. Bremer flew by helicopter to inspect an irrigation project financed by the United States. The scene, choreographed by his handlers, nonetheless contained signs that the Iraqi enterprise was gathering a momentum of its own.

The project, costing $167,000, refurbished or replaced five aging irrigation pumps on the Tigris River. It was the first time in 36 years, said an Iraqi supervisor, that the pumps had operated at full capacity.

"Thank you, thank you!" cried Hekmet Rasoq, the 64-year-old supervisor, shaking Mr. Bremer's hand. Behind him, a crowd of Iraqis had come of their houses to wave.

"They should thank you," Mr. Bremer said of the Iraqis. "You're doing all the work."

Jeffrey Gettleman contributed reporting from Baghdad for this article.