Iraq: The Transition, Reloaded

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New U.S. civil administrator Paul Bremer meets the press

Iraq this week saw its second regime-change in a month: The official line may be that the hand-over of authority in Baghdad from retired general Jay Garner to former ambassador Paul Bremer is simply a preplanned administrative change signaling progress and continuity, but it was clear to many in the Iraqi capital on Thursday that significant changes have occurred. U.S. military units that had been slated to go home were suddenly ordered to stay, and to begin systematically patrolling the city with an eye to stopping looting and restoring order. Bremer announced on Thursday that these patrols had arrested about 300 criminals in two days, and their visible presence on Baghdad's dark streets was a sign that the lawlessness plaguing the capital will no longer be tolerated. It was also a sign that Washington's new viceroy has far greater authority than did his predecessor to enlist the military in support of the transition effort.

The change has come not a moment too soon for U.S. and coalition officials working on the ground in Iraq who have quietly but insistently warned of a mounting danger that the peace could be lost. The complex and treacherous game of installing a new Iraqi government was never going to be resolved quickly or easily, but there is widespread shock and anger in Baghdad that the world's greatest industrial and military power, which swept aside Saddam's regime in a matter of three weeks, has failed, a month later, to restore Baghdad's electricity supply or to secure the streets from marauding thugs.

The primary problem, identified both by Baghdadis and coalition officials, is security. Ordinary residents of the capital are not appreciably safer now than they were when the city first fell. Gangs of looters — some of them remnants of the old regime, according to U.S. officials, targeting their actions to maintain maximum chaos — have continued to run rampant, and expectations that the wave of looting that followed the regime's fall would abate have proved optimistic. Instead, looters have become more organized, extending to residential neighborhoods and personal property, and firefights among rival gangs and between the gangs and residents protecting their neighborhoods has become commonplace. Banks remain closed, and arms dealers who set out stalls in local produce markets are doing a roaring trade. Add to that the fact that the electrical grid is supplying only 40 percent capacity; there are no streetlights, no telephone system, TV, radio or other reliable forms of communication; gasoline shortages require residents to line up for 10 hours in order to buy a third of a tank; the fact that the prewar jobs of millions of Iraqis have simply disappeared, leaving them without income and no reliable food distribution system to replace the official rationing system that existed before the war — looting and criminal violence has slowed the deliver of aid — and the situation of many ordinary Iraqis borders on desperate. And likely to become even more so if, with the onset of summer and its daytime temperatures typically above 100 degrees, the electricity supply is unable to support refrigerators and air conditioners.

Nor have Iraqis had a clear sense of who is in charge. The U.S.-led transitional authority has been for the most part inaccessible to the residents of the city, if not somewhat invisible. The most orderly neighborhoods in Baghdad may well be in the Shiite ghetto known now as Sadr City, where local imams, acting on orders from the clerical hierarchy in Najaf and for the most part ignoring coalition troops and administrators, have organized local militia to stop looting, provide security and restore basic services. But given the strong influence of Islamist radicals among them, these are not the elements the U.S. had hoped to see fill the power vacuum left by Saddam's overthrow.

The sharpest reminder of the urgency of Bremer's mission came on Tuesday, not in Iraq itself, but in neighboring Saudi Arabia, where suspected al-Qaeda operatives staged a deadly multiple terror attack on Americans and other foreigners. Al Qaeda loves a vacuum — it's no coincidence that the network's headquarters have been in states such as Afghanistan and Sudan, rather than authoritarian autocracies such as Saddam's Iraq. But if the current turmoil in Iraq persists, it would certainly fit the textbook definition of an attractive setting for Bin Laden acolytes seeking new addresses.

Confronting the security crisis, which is the prerequisite for tackling all the other problems, has forced the U.S. military to accept, at least for now, a role to which it doesn't easily incline. The commanders of the approximately 49,000 U.S. troops in the Baghdad area right now hadn't planned on deploying them in the mundane day-to-day policing role that goes with being an occupier. And while the word "liberator" may be preferred for domestic consumption, Washington is in fact asking the UN Security Council recognition of the U.S. and Britain as "occupying powers" in Iraq, with all the attendant responsibilities under the Geneva Convention — including direct responsibility for maintaining security.

But besides the Pentagon's traditional reluctance to dull the blade of its fighting forces by deploying them as policemen, there is also a concern that these troops are not specifically trained for the complex and challenging mission of providing day-to-day security in an alien, often hostile environment in a manner that endears the occupying forces to the local population. And to win the hearts and minds of that local population while knowing there are bad guys lurking among them whose prime purpose is to kill Americans — just last week two U.S. soldiers were shot dead in separate incidents in Baghdad. Recognizing the problem, the U.S. has moved to expand the number of military police in its Baghdad detachment to 4,000, and also plans to replace the 3rd Infantry Division which fought its way to the Iraqi capital with the 1st Infantry Division, currently based in Germany, which has extensive peacekeeping experience in the Balkans.

Bremer is also moving quickly on a number of other fronts to speed the delivery of basic services to Iraqis, to demonstrate that the coalition is in charge and that it is pursuing plans to make life better in Iraq. It's not yet clear how he plans to manage the establishment of an interim government, although that may become clearer after he meets on Friday with the seven-member leadership council tapped by Garner to organize the process. The political landscape remains uncertain, particularly in respect of the majority Shiite community, many of whose clerical leaders are rejecting any authority that functions under U.S. tutelage. But Bremer will certainly be looking to strengthen the U.S. political position vis-a-vis the Shiites by restoring security and basic services.

Bremer's appointment had been characterized in the U.S. media as a victory for Secretary of State Colin Powell in his battles with Defense Secretary Rumsfeld, but while Bremer hails from the State Department, he is reported to hold hawkish views on Islamic extremism, and in his new position he reports directly to Rumsfeld. In fact, Washington insiders cite his ability to bridge the Defense-State divide as among his primary assets in the job. Another may be his understanding of the urgency of the U.S.-led occupation authority delivering security and services to ordinary Iraqis: His most senior position at the State Department had, after all, been coordinator for counter-terrorism.