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

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It was only after weeks of angry protests by destitute Iraqi troops that the Americans agreed to pay former soldiers up to $150 a month. Last April, Bremer finally reversed the de-Baathification order, saying it had been "poorly implemented." Even to those who worked closely with Bremer and admire his diligence, his cocksure stubbornness was frustrating. "[He] takes in alternative views," says Bremer's British counterpart, Jeremy Greenstock, who worked in the green zone, "but he doesn't like changing his decisions."

As security deteriorated last year — U.S. military fatalities rose from one a day last summer to four a day by November — Bremer came under heavy pressure from Washington to put a plan in place that would return sovereignty to the Iraqis sooner rather than later. Bremer was summoned back to Washington last November. He returned to Iraq with a significantly different game plan, one that would eliminate his job as proconsul years ahead of schedule. (The last American in a comparable position, Douglas MacArthur, ran Japan for six years.) The White House, and National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and her deputy, Robert Blackwill, in particular, took over the Iraqi political portfolio from an inept Pentagon and told Bremer to find a way to form an Iraqi government that could assume power from the CPA by July 2004. Bremer devised a complex caucus system intended to ensure that the rights of the minority Sunnis and Kurds would be protected. But the plan was never accepted by the key political force in the country, Grand Ayatullah Ali Husaini Sistani, the religious leader of the majority Shi'ite Muslims. He wanted direct elections in 2004. Bremer at first "tried to roll over him," believing that giving in to the Shi'ites would drive the Kurds and Sunnis away from the political process, perhaps for good, says a coalition official.

But Sistani's intransigence and insistence on the U.N.'s involvement forced Bremer to rip up his plans. In mid-January, Bremer flew to New York and met in the basement of the United Nations building with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, Greenstock and several members of the Governing Council. Annan became convinced the Americans would defer to the U.N. on the transition to Iraqi sovereignty. Annan assigned his envoy, Lakhdar Brahimi, to go to Iraq to help piece together the interim government and figure out whether direct elections were really feasible in 2004. Brahimi and U.N. election expert Carla Perelli ultimately advised Sistani they were not, and Sistani agreed to the current plan: a June 30 handover, with direct elections to be held next January. Bremer finally backed off the caucus idea. Bremer's ultimate willingness to compromise earned him the highest praise of his tenure. Greenstock says that Bremer "was the guiding hand for ending Sistani's block without a bust-up. He managed it very well."

Critics say Bremer did not come to know many Iraqis outside the Governing Council — and that he managed to alienate even council members with his brisk manner, as a CPA source puts it. His defenders say that keeping council members in line — and maintaining momentum for the handover of power — consumed most of Bremer's energy. As a result, Bremer spent much of his time playing an inside game, forgoing meetings with the Iraqi public and allowing the day-to-day governance in much of the country to be carried out by either U.S. troops or local militia that rushed into the void. "In politics, the path from A to B is never straight. It almost always goes through C, D or F," Bremer says.

That said, he can point to some undeniable successes. On March 1, Bremer and the council worked until the wee hours of the morning on the so-called Transitional Administrative Law, a document that, while only temporary, may provide the basis for a new Iraqi constitution.

Bremer says he will ultimately be judged not for the violence and mismanagement that marred his administration but for the political arrangements set in place during his 13 months in Baghdad. But he can't escape questions about his political judgment — in particular the decision in late March to close the newspaper affiliated with the radical Shi'ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. At the time, Bremer said the paper was inciting anti-Americanism and endangering U.S. troops. Adnan Pachachi, then a Governing Council member, says that no one was consulted when Bremer decided to shut the paper down. In response, al-Sadr's loyalists staged a rolling revolt in Baghdad and across much of southern Iraq, locking down cities and in the process turning many previously neutral Iraqi Shi'ites firmly against the U.S. occupation. Governing Council members believe the decision was a huge mistake. Says Ibrahim Jaafari, one of the two Vice Presidents in the new Iraqi government: "We couldn't contain the Sadr movement." U.S. troops were forced to fight troops loyal to al-Sadr in Najaf and other politically vital Shi'ite cities in the south. While al-Sadr has in recent weeks called on his fighters to lay down their arms, few members of the new government believe that conflict was inevitable, and most trace it back to the decision to shut the newspaper. "Najaf was a political failure," says Jaafari.

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