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Getting Baghdad Running Again Is Complicated Task

U.S. reconstruction officials are busy trying to figure out how the city used to tick.

May 01, 2003|Michael Slackman | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — With all of the issues facing U.S. administrators in this capital city, finding a place to put the garbage is proving almost as vexing as figuring out how to unite the Iraqi people behind a new government.

When the regime of Saddam Hussein fell April 9, so did all of its services, such as police protection and trash collection. U.S. administrators are trying to restore those services, but they are learning it's not as easy as sending out the trash trucks.

In fact, the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which is slowly assuming power from the American military here, tried to organize the resumption of garbage collection this week. With the summer heat approaching and piles of trash building up, it was as much a health priority as an aesthetic one.

Iraqi drivers, driving Iraqi trucks, did make some rounds. But when it came time to dispose of the trash, everyone looked puzzled.

"Where is the landfill? Where do you take it?" a senior official with the reconstruction agency said Wednesday at a briefing for journalists. "There doesn't seem to be one anyone can find."

The Americans and their British allies have discovered that before they can address such problems, they must figure out how the city used to run. Reconstruction agency officials agreed to speak about their efforts -- and the challenges they face -- as long as they were not identified by name or title.

The problem is that while the agency is getting up to speed, Iraqis are increasingly taking matters into their own hands. Many cities are appointing, or electing, councils. Religious leaders are providing municipal services, running hospitals, even providing protection to neighborhoods.

The more entrenched these systems become, the more likely it is that when the reconstruction agency is ready to move in, it will find itself in a confrontation with those who have assumed authority.

That is a reality that agency officials are aware of but unable to confront at the moment. "We just can't quite do all of it at one time," the senior official said. "That's an issue I will have to worry about sequentially."

The agency is headed by retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner and staffed by a team of American and British technocrats charged with helping rebuild the infrastructure, jump-starting the economy and shaping a new government. Everything has to be done from scratch. If the city doesn't have electricity or phone service, neither does the agency staff.

Staffers are so isolated by infrastructure difficulties and security concerns that a senior official had not heard about the events Monday night in Fallouja, a city west of Baghdad, where U.S. forces opened fire on a crowd of protesters. The Iraqis said they were unarmed and that 14 people were killed and 75 injured. The U.S. troops said they were fired on.

"I am in a complete news void here," the senior official said. "What happened in Fallouja? I didn't know about it."

What the reconstruction agency staff expected when it arrived in Baghdad is unclear, but it is coming to terms with the mammoth task that awaits. Everyone knows Hussein was in control of the country, but how the municipal services related to national ministries is something of a mystery. What, for example, was the relationship between hospitals and the Health Ministry?

They also are discovering that the small details are often what make or break a plan. Getting people to return to government jobs is a major priority, for example. But they won't go back to work unless they feel secure.

There has been some progress. On Tuesday night, officials broadcast on radio a request for employees of the Planning Ministry to return to work Wednesday, and 150 showed up.

But even something as straightforward as asking people to come back to work can run into a minefield.

Garner's agency will need to weed out high-ranking members of the formerly ruling Baath Party who may be guilty of crimes. That complicates things, because in many cases, party members served as the technocrats in the ministries.

One official said that the agency has developed a process for identifying suspects but that it will take time to implement.

"We are going to have to be careful about the process, but there is a process," said an agency official. "The initial idea is, if they are undesirable, we will ask them to stay home."

Another complex task is helping communities develop their own councils, which will be advisory only. Reconstruction officials said they have had some meetings with Iraqis to discuss how best to build on whatever can -- or should -- be retained from the defunct system.

Most of all, the Iraqis say, they do not want an alien system imposed on them.

"They said whatever arises has to reflect their society, their culture and their way of doing things," said the senior agency official.

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