Paul Bremer's Rough Ride

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On a chopper trip to say goodbye to Iraqi officials in Basra and Babylon, Bremer surveys the land he has governed

Paul Bremer would be the first to tell you that he has not had much time since he arrived in Baghdad just over a year ago to think about how he will go out. The proud finisher of 20 marathons, Bremer was a distance runner thrown into a sprint, a mad 13-month dash to try to create a new government and something approaching stability out of the fractious void that Iraq became in the wake of the coalition overthrow of Saddam Hussein in the spring of 2003. If the U.S. occupation of Iraq has proved that Secretary of State Colin Powell was right to remind President Bush before the war that if the U.S. broke Iraq, the U.S. would own it, then Bremer was the guy who got handed the broom. He was tasked with sweeping up the mess, responsible for everything from making sure the electricity was on, to putting together a new central bank, to coming up with a workable political system in a country where politics had, for the past 24 years, come at the end of the barrel of a gun. "I probably made several hundred decisions a day," he told TIME, "and I surely can't be getting them all right.''

Now he is in his last days, and outwardly at least he leaves as he arrived: cool, calm and collected. Meticulous in dress, he is articulate, strong willed, tireless in his work. Even his harshest critics give Paul Bremer all that. But next week, when he vacates his office at Baghdad's Republican Palace, from which he has essentially run Iraq, Bremer will depart with a diminished reputation. Blame for the failures of the occupation can be spread across the whole spectrum of the U.S. military and political leadership — from the Pentagon planners who ignored warnings of the chaos that would follow "liberation" to the military commanders who tolerated the climate of brutality at the Abu Ghraib prison. But Bremer also comes in for his fair share. In interviews with TIME, a range of U.S., British and Iraqi officials said Bremer's tenure yielded some important achievements but was also plagued by misjudgment, insensitivity and stubbornness in the face of spiraling unrest and steadily deteriorating Iraqi support for the occupation. Indeed, it's safe to say that Bremer would never have imagined that he would be departing amid such violence and chaos.

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With the handover of power set for June 30, the troubles plaguing the U.S. venture in Iraq remain on harrowing display. In Baghdad, where Bremer's green zone headquarters sit cordoned off and isolated from the rest of the city ("like Xanadu," says a British official), a suicide bombing on Thursday killed 35 Iraqis and wounded at least 138. In all, car bombs killed nearly 90 throughout Iraq last week. For some, images of the continuing carnage, the failure to find illicit weapons and now the 9/11 commission's conclusion that Iraq did not aid al-Qaeda's attack on America serve to undermine the Bush Administration's efforts to herald the establishment of a new Iraqi government as a sign that the occupation has been worth the sacrifice.

And yet, even as he prepares to exit, Bremer continues to stick to the script. "If you go back and look at what has been accomplished, I would say that we have [done] almost everything we set out to accomplish at liberation," he told TIME. "[President Bush and Prime Minister Blair] had a vision of an Iraq that was stable, pluralistic, democratic, at peace with itself — and we have accomplished most of that. There are still problems with security, of course, and I expect there will continue to be problems with security."

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