Can Anyone Govern This Place?

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Paul Bremer strode into the sweltering Iraqi capital of Baghdad last week, sounding to all the world like the new sheriff in town — albeit one wearing a suit and tie. For a city racked by instability and violence, President Bush's newly appointed civilian chief promised a new, no-nonsense approach to law and order. Referring to the thousands of criminals Saddam Hussein freed before the war, the seasoned diplomat and counterterrorism expert declared, "It's time we put these people back in jail."

But after the first month of U.S. occupation of Iraq, it's clear that bringing security — to say nothing of democracy — to a broken country is more easily pledged than done. Bremer's predecessor, retired Lieut. General Jay Garner, fared so poorly from the start that one of his own underlings in Iraq, career diplomat Barbara Bodine, sounded the alarm. She dashed off scathing reports to colleagues back in Washington warning that he was in danger of losing the peace, according to officials at the State Department and the Baghdad-based Office of Humanitarian and Reconstruction Assistance (OHRA). (Bodine declined to comment for this article.) The inability of Garner to get his arms around Baghdad's troubles not only cost him his job but has also lost the U.S. considerable goodwill among the Iraqi population, damaged American credibility abroad and raised the prospect of prolonged turmoil in the country. Now, as a senior U.S. official starkly puts it, "we have a month to [turn things around]" before the people's frustration could turn into full-blown rage.


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The city is on edge. Bremer is putting a good spin on things, talking about hundreds of new arrests, longer detentions and stepped-up night patrols. "This is not a country in anarchy," he says. "People are going about their business. Across most of Iraq, life is clearly getting better." But Baghdad's beleaguered residents might beg to differ. Running water and electricity are rare to come by; the wait for gasoline can last two days; and in many neighborhoods, malnourished children play in streets that are flooded with raw sewage and piled with garbage.

The Pentagon contends that most of these conditions predate the war. But there has been a fearsome jump in crime. Carjackings, lootings, robberies, arson and rapes have become the order of the day — and night. Automatic gunfire provides an unsettling sound track for daily life. The threat of violence makes parents afraid to send their kids to school, merchants wary of opening their stores and law-abiding Iraqis nervous about going out after dark. The Americans have tried to blame pro-Saddam saboteurs for the collapse of order. Lieut. General David McKiernan, head of the U.S. land forces in Iraq, said last week that Baghdad's breakdown was largely the result of an organized resistance engineered by Saddam loyalists. But other military officials say this is secondary to the main issue: restoring the minimum quality of life for ordinary Iraqis — a job, electricity, proper sewage, safe streets. An American intelligence official says he believes that the amount of politically inspired armed resistance is "remarkably low."

Either way, there are not nearly enough police to make a difference, and some of the few in uniform aren't even the real thing. The Iraqi Red Crescent learned that lesson when thieves posing as traffic cops held up one of the organization's workers and made off with his car. Automobile theft has become such a recurring problem that the relief organization CARE has ordered workers to use taxis to get around the city. "We half expected the police force to still be functional, but they were not," Army Major General Buford Blount, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said last week. Although more than half of Baghdad's regular policemen — about 1,700--have returned to work, few have cars, all need to be retrained and their looted station houses are not open around the clock.

Few had expected the U.S. to have this much trouble bringing order to Iraq. "It's difficult to imagine how this could have happened," says a British government official. "But it appears that there was no planning whatsoever."

From the outset, the Bush Administration was overly optimistic and in many ways unprepared for the myriad, messy challenges of rebuilding Iraq. The Pentagon had expected the postwar transition in Iraq to be orderly and quick, without requiring a major, long-term commitment of U.S. forces and other resources. Washington, it now seems, spent too much time thinking about how to reform institutions and not enough time on how to provide people with basic security or infrastructure such as electrical grids, oil-refining equipment, hospitals and museums.

The situation wasn't helped by the fact that Garner and his team at OHRA tried so hard to avoid looking like an occupying power. Holed up in headquarters at one of Saddam's opulent palaces, where their satellite-phone communications were spotty at best, they rarely ventured out. All too often, the American overseers found themselves relying on Western journalists to tell them what was happening in the city. When reconstruction officials did try to make their way around town, they went in a convoy of armed humvees, which was not exactly the friendly image that the U.S. wanted to project.

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