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Administrator Lands in Chaotic Baghdad

As lawlessness continues a month after the fall of the Iraqi capital, restoring security is at the top of the agenda for L. Paul Bremer III.

May 13, 2003|Eric Slater and Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The new civilian administrator of Iraq arrived in this chaos-choked capital Monday, faced with the daunting task of restoring everything from security to electricity, a job many here and in Washington say has not been handled effectively.

As looted buildings burned and gunmen continued to roam freely, L. Paul Bremer III landed at Baghdad's international airport Monday afternoon to head all political and reconstruction efforts in the country. Bremer will, among other tasks, oversee the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, which has been run by retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner.

Bremer is the first of several officials due in the country in the coming weeks to replace current civilian leaders who have been trying with little success to begin the rebuilding effort.

"It's a wonderful challenge to help the Iraqi people basically reclaim their country from a despotic regime," Bremer said after landing at the airport southwest of the city.

Garner has said he will remain for several weeks to help Bremer settle into his new post. Veteran diplomat Barbara Bodine, who under Garner oversaw central Iraq, including Baghdad, also is headed back to Washington.

With U.S. officials acknowledging they did not anticipate the crippling wave of crime that swept the country after Baghdad fell more than a month ago, security is the first item on Bremer's agenda. In coming days, he will focus on retraining Iraqi police officers and returning them to the street and on bolstering the country's flagging court system.

Iraqis say he must also open his offices to local officials and residents and make clear his presence and his efforts -- things Garner failed to do, in the view of many Iraqis.

The arrival of a new top official was welcomed by many here, both citizens on the street and would-be leaders in an interim government, many of whom have criticized the U.S. as having planned well for the war but not for its aftermath.

"We hope his arrival will bring a point of focus to this process," said Zaab Sethna, an advisor at the Iraqi National Congress, one of many opposition groups vying for power since U.S.-led forces toppled the regime of Saddam Hussein. "What you had before was three parallel tracks: the military, the reconstruction and the humanitarian side. We hope Mr. Bremer will be able to pull these together."

With allied forces and civil administrators having failed to restore law and order, as well as most public services, thus far, some Iraqis have begun to believe that the U.S. is abetting the disorder to gain long-term control over the country. In his brief comments at the airport, Bremer sought to reassure the public.

"The coalition forces did not come to colonize Iraq," he said. "We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we've done. Now our job is to turn and help the Iraqi people regain control of their own destiny, to help the Iraqi society rebuild on the basis of individual liberties, respect for the rule of law and respect for each other."

After flying from U.S. Central Command headquarters in Doha, Qatar, and then Kuwait on Sunday, Bremer traveled Monday first to the southern city of Basra and then Baghdad, along with Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, and Garner.

A day before Bremer's arrival in the capital, the continuing lawlessness included an incident in which a band of car thieves fired guns into a crowd downtown in order to clear an escape route.

With just two courthouses open in this city of 5 million people, most of those captured and accused of crimes other than murder, rape and armed robbery are held at police headquarters for a short time and then let go.

Garner's critics here have accused him of many shortcomings in his leadership, but top among them has been a failure to maintain a visible profile, leaving Iraqis feeling that their country is not only damaged but rudderless.

"His invisibility was just a mistake," said a spokesman from one Hussein opposition group, who asked not to be identified. "Iraqis couldn't even see people from ORHA, and that was by design. People in important positions, people who should have been consulted, were intentionally kept away from [Garner]. We look forward to working with Bremer. Hopefully that will change."

Bremer went out of his way Monday to thank the embattled Garner, saying he wanted to "pay public tribute to Jay and all of his people for the great job they have done."

Monday brought some small steps toward stability.

ORHA officials working to retrain Baghdad's police force began rearming some officers, many of whom had had their guns confiscated by U.S. troops so they would not be mistaken for criminals.

However, none of Baghdad's 60 police stations are yet operating around the clock, an ORHA official said, and very few officers can been seen on the streets.

"I don't even have a pistol and the thieves have Kalashnikovs," one traffic officer said recently. "They don't have any respect for me."

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