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U.S. Struggles in Quicksand of Iraq

Continuing disorder is fueling skepticism and allowing competing political forces to fill the void.

May 05, 2003|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Nearly a month after Baghdad fell to U.S. forces, the reconstruction effort is struggling to gain visibility and credibility, crime is a continuing problem, Iraqis desperate for jobs and security are becoming angry and the transition to democracy promised by President Bush seems rife with risk.

The continuing disorder in a country accustomed to the repressive but absolute stability provided by Saddam Hussein is fueling at least a deep skepticism about U.S. intentions and at worst a dangerous anti-Americanism. As competing religious, tribal and territorial political forces move to fill the void, they threaten to divide the country rather than unite it.

Interviews with political analysts, exile figures and ordinary Iraqis throughout the country, coupled with developments on the ground, indicate that the United States' power to control Iraq and shape its future is increasingly threatened by the pervasive uncertainty.

On many fronts, U.S. officials appear to have been unprepared for what awaited them in Iraq, from mundane concerns such as how to cope with the lack of telephones to philosophical questions such as how to respond to the desire of many Iraqis for an Islamic state.

"The Americans and the British became obsessed with getting rid of Saddam; they thought he was responsible for all the catastrophes in Iraq," said Wamid Nadmi, a political science professor at Baghdad University. "But they have opened a Pandora's box."

U.S. officials say they are aware that time is of the essence.

"We're moving as fast as we can," said Lewis Lucke, reconstruction chief for retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the interim administrator. "I don't ever think it's fast enough."

U.S. officials point out that electricity is on again in much of the country; oil is being pumped in the southern fields; and many police, fire and emergency workers have been given a $20 stipend and are returning to their jobs. There have been numerous local success stories as well, with individual U.S. military commanders helping to reopen schools and protecting public facilities from looters.

But often, U.S. officials seem stymied by the competing imperatives to get the country running while not appearing to be a dictatorial occupying force. Efforts to restore security, revive services, begin reconstruction and set up a new government are encountering difficulty.

For instance:

* The looting that began the day after Hussein's regime fell has yet to end. On Sunday, a crowd stormed into one of the palaces recently left unprotected by U.S. soldiers. Without a true police force in place, the wide-scale stealing has spawned a culture of lawlessness. Gun markets flourish on Baghdad's back streets, and armed robberies and carjackings have become common.

* Garner's Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, responsible for running the country, has yet to make its presence felt. With mass media in the capital limited to two radio stations, the office hasn't figured out how to communicate with the Iraqi people. There is no U.S. government office accessible to ordinary Iraqis.

* Many key contracts for rebuilding Iraq were not awarded until after the war started, and many contractors are waiting in hotels in Kuwait for the green light from the U.S. military that it is safe to enter the country.

* As the U.S. tries to help set up a new Iraqi government, the exile groups that many U.S. officials hoped Iraqis would rally around have won little popular support. Meanwhile, the organizations that are showing political strength -- including some Shiite Muslim groups backed by Iran -- are potentially hostile to U.S. aims.

Although the reconstruction effort is only weeks old, the Bush administration is already stressing that it would like to shift to an Iraqi-led government as soon as possible. At the same time, the lack of a visible American presence has sown doubts about U.S. intentions and frustrated ordinary Iraqis.

Few if any people here have even heard of Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, who has kept such a low profile as to be almost invisible. Last week he issued a proclamation saying he was the lead authority and forbidding looting, reprisals and criminal activity. But it was never widely distributed, and few people even know about it.

As for Garner and his staff, they are just beginning to communicate with the public. Their few reconstruction steps -- including giving out money to returning workers -- have yet to be applied evenly throughout Iraq.

In Nasiriyah on Sunday, teachers demanded to be paid, and the newly constituted city council threatened to quit unless salaries were distributed to all government workers.

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