Occupational Hazards

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TAKING CHARGE: U.S. soldiers attempt to restore peace after Iraqis waiting for propane grow unruly in the Baghdad neighborhood of Sadr City, where anti-American sentiments run high

You have to be patient," says Paul Bremer, the de facto American Governor of Iraq, sitting in his small office in the cavernous Republican Palace in Baghdad. "None of us has any experience in this," he says, referring to the reconstruction task ahead of him. "Those who do are over 90. We have not done it since Germany."

The analogy is both apt and troubling. Like Germany at the end of World War II, Iraq is an urbanized but ravaged society living in the shadow of a vile dictatorship. As in Germany, the systems for providing essential services like water and power have been wrecked. As in Germany, basic conditions of order and security are lacking in much of Iraq; there are too many weapons in the hands of too many people prepared to use them to settle old scores or redress new grievances. For American troops, Iraq is still a dangerous place. In the three weeks of war before U.S. soldiers penetrated Baghdad and hauled down the statue of Saddam Hussein in Firdos Square, 123 Americans died at the hands of the enemy or in accidents. In the weeks since April 9, an additional 55 have been killed, 15 of them by hostile fire. "The war has not ended, Madam," said Lieut. General David McKiernan last week, when asked at a press conference how many U.S. troops had been injured "since the end of the war." As if to confirm his observation, the Pentagon is delaying planned withdrawals of some of the 150,000 troops stationed in Iraq, including the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, some of whose soldiers have not been home for nine months. Under the original blueprint for a postwar Iraq, says a Pentagon official, the U.S. was supposed to have no more than 75,000 troops in the country by September. That's still three months away, but the official already says, "We're not so sure that's going to happen."

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The state of postwar Iraq seems to have caught the Administration off guard, and its lack of preparedness has opened it to criticism in Congress. In time, American soldiers can come home. In time, electricity will be restored, potable water made to flow, guns taken off the streets and all the other hurdles to peace and prosperity overcome, as they were in Germany. Indeed, Bremer and his aides at the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs (ORHA) insist this is happening. Each week, they say, power is on a bit longer, more police cars are in the streets, more clean water is available. But time is the key. Two years after the end of World War II, Germany's cities and economy were still wrecked. It was another two years before West German politics had matured enough to establish a new constitution, six more before the Allied powers' legal authority over the German government ended. Which raises the question: Does the U.S. have the stomach for an occupation of Iraq that could require a commitment of as long as a decade? And if so, does it have the skills to handle such an undertaking without breeding the sort of resentment that perpetually places young Americans in uniform at deadly risk?

Articulate, energetic, with the kind of Kennedyesque profile to which men of a certain age aspire, Bremer has the look of a man used to success. But he has inherited a mess. His predecessor, retired General Jay Garner, is leaving Baghdad only 40 days after arriving. Garner insists that he always knew he would be replaced rapidly — he had told his wife that he would be home for his family's annual Fourth of July picnic — but everyone understands that the switch was accelerated because the first month went badly. Officials acknowledge that America's postwar planners made a central mistake, though an understandable one: they assumed that Garner's most pressing task would be to ameliorate a humanitarian catastrophe, perhaps one in which millions of refugees fled chemical and biological weapons. But no such weapons were used; flows of displaced persons were relatively small. "Jay was the absolutely perfect man for a job that wasn't needed," says a civilian adviser to the Pentagon team. Says Garner himself: "If only Iraqis were dying of starvation and disease, and there were TV reports showing Americans giving food and shots to suffering children, the American public would have been pleased insofar as what they expected."

Maybe so. What the American public can hardly be pleased about is that a month after President George W. Bush said that "major combat operations in Iraq have ended," American soldiers are still getting killed on a regular basis. As an officer from the Garner team said, "That many deaths if you multiply 15 a week by 52, that's unacceptable, politically, that's unacceptable." Given the dangers from remnants of the Iraqi army, irregular forces loyal to Saddam Hussein and gangsters on the streets of Baghdad and other towns, American forces are far from being secure. The Iraqi army was supposed to have been disbanded last week — at least an edict to that effect was issued by Bremer. But saying an army no longer exists is different from disarming it. Iraq has half a million unemployed soldiers, many of them expected to care for extended families, many of them having received no pay for two months and many of them with weapons. That's a combustible combination. On the road to Baghdad from the international airport last week, a twisted heap that had once been an Army humvee sat on the highway. Crouched behind a metal guardrail, an Iraqi had triggered a trip wire, detonating a charge. One American was killed. "The only person who knows how to do that is the Iraqi Baathist army," concludes a U.S. naval intelligence officer attached to ORHA. "And they are thinking right now, F___ the Americans; we'll gravitate toward the radicals."

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