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Bremer Lends an Ear to a Cacophony of Hopes

The U.S. administrator in Iraq is skilled at forging relationships and conceiving plans. What he lacks, however, is time and resources.

August 25, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Watching L. Paul Bremer III on one of his typical workdays in Baghdad -- 18 hours of meetings, phone calls to Washington, visits with Iraqi tribal leaders and the recording of his weekly television address -- it is hard to imagine a man with a greater commitment to the project of rebuilding Iraq.

Armed with a massive array of facts and a disarmingly candid manner, the chief of the U.S.-led civilian authority here lays out a coherent picture of the steps needed to make this country thrive. But it is also hard to ignore the reality that he may have neither the resources nor the time to accomplish that mission, especially given the fast-disappearing patience of the Iraqi public and the threat that escalating violence will overtake progress.

"What I've tried to do is find the right balance between offering a vision of hope [and] ... the reality of the challenges that we face," he said in a recent interview in his office in the grand Republican Palace, Saddam Hussein's former headquarters, where the oversize wooden doors and high ceilings are oddly reminiscent of a Senate office building on Capitol Hill.

"I believe the future is hopeful," he said. "This is inherently a very rich country.... They have great resources in their oil, their land, their potential for tourism. They are well educated."

Publicly, Bremer avoids discussing the intelligence aspects of his job, which revolves around the controversial work of tracking domestic and foreign terrorist threats in the country. It has been widely reported that the civilian authority has hired former members of Hussein's feared intelligence network to track militants and Iranian-backed agents -- a move that raises questions about the intention of the American occupation to make a complete break with Iraq's brutal past.

But on almost every other front, Bremer has plans that he openly discusses. On employment, he has recommended a public works program for 300,000 Iraqis to give them a renewed sense of purpose, put money in their pockets and provide a work force to help local governments get the economy going.

His proposed budget would pump millions of dollars into the health care system, which he says is in urgent need of equipment and medicine.

And as soon as it became clear that potentially hundreds of foreign fighters were streaming into the country, Bremer began working on a system for policing the borders.

But none of these solutions comes quickly or cheap, and Bremer is clear-eyed about the limitations he faces.

For example, weeks before the bombing of the Jordanian Embassy on Aug. 7, Bremer had recognized that Iraq's dilapidated emergency response system would be hard-pressed to cope with a serious terrorist attack. But his stark assessment was that he had little leeway to do more than he was already doing. "It isn't as if we suddenly say, 'Oh my God, we've got to have more police because there are terrorists around.' We know that we need more police -- tell us something we don't know. We've got to have more fire engines, we know that, but where are they coming from? Who's paying for it?

"We are not at a point where we have the luxury of doing a separate kind of analysis and consequence management. We have to do all of those things with or without a terrorist attack."

He says the police won't be fully staffed and trained until close to the end of 2004, and senior officials in the civilian authority say it cannot be done properly without international police trainers, which are expensive hires. The border patrol needs training as well.

A diplomat-turned-businessman who has now turned diplomat again, Bremer, 61, took the job of top civilian administrator in Iraq when the focus was on rebuilding. In the private sector he had advised businesses investing in emerging markets. But since he arrived here, it has become clear that security has displaced rebuilding as the primary concern.

But that is a subject about which he is much more guarded. Asked during the interview for the number of intelligence agents in the country, he said, "I can't give you that -- lots."

Questioned Sunday on CNN about the reported rehiring of Hussein's intelligence agents, Bremer said, "We need better intelligence, and we are seeking better intelligence. But I don't want to get into how we go about doing that; that's basically to tell the enemy what you're doing."

Bremer's operation runs like a mini-White House. He rises in the hot dawn, then usually goes for a run -- he placed in the top of his age category a few years ago when he ran the Boston Marathon -- and has his first meeting by 7:30. He is briefed on military and intelligence matters daily, according to Coalition Provisional Authority officials.

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