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Bremer Says Policing Increased in Baghdad

May 16, 2003|Tyler Marshall and Esther Schrader | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — American troops stepped up their presence here to deal with street crime and looting, even as the new U.S. civil administrator insisted Thursday that conditions have not deteriorated as badly as critics contend.

"This is not a country in anarchy," L. Paul Bremer III said at his first news conference since arriving in Iraq. "People are going about their business, they are going about their lives."

Still, it was clear that U.S. officials were deeply concerned about the lack of visible authority in the streets, and Bremer conceded that there was a "serious law-and-order problem." Both he and a senior U.S. military commander said troops have taken a higher profile in response.

"We're aggressively out on the streets now and trying to show the people of Iraq that they do have a secure city to live in," Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, commander of the Army's 3rd Infantry Division in Iraq, told Pentagon reporters in a videoconference call.

"We are a police force now. Our combat engineers have become civil engineers, our infantrymen and tankers are security guards and police, and civil affairs have become paymasters," Blount said.

The violence and chaos in the capital city have fueled resentment against the U.S. presence. Looting and burning of large buildings have become near-daily occurrences, and small-arms fire crackles nightly.

In both tone and content, Bremer's remarks conveyed a stronger sense of urgency about the need to restore order than previously shown by U.S. authorities. "We have started aggressive patrols at night," Bremer said. "Last night we ran over 300 patrols in Baghdad and arrested 92 criminals.

"We understand the importance of this issue," he later added. "There is a serious law-and-order problem and we will continue to address it."

Bremer said courts and jails are starting to reopen, and as a result Blount said authorities will hold looters for 21 days, rather than for only a few hours or a few days, as they had been doing before.

In addition, 300 soldiers have started guarding oil refineries and escorting gasoline trucks to make sure they make it safely to gas stations. Long lines at stations have triggered many of the violent flare-ups in recent weeks.

Blount said troops are guarding more than 200 sites throughout the city and rolling heavy armor through the streets to discourage crime. He said nearly 4,000 military police are expected to be in the city by month's end. Soldiers of the 3rd Division also are enlisting Iraqi workers to remove trash that has piled up for months.

At a Pentagon news conference later Thursday, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said establishing a secure environment in Iraq remains the No. 1 priority. Rumsfeld and Blount both said no departure dates for troops had been set.

Elements of the Army's 1st Armored Division will enter Iraq soon from staging areas in Kuwait, and at that point U.S. commanders will have a better sense of when the 3rd Infantry can start scaling back, Blount said.

Military operations are continuing, however. U.S. officials said Thursday that a large-scale raid by U.S. soldiers into a village near former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's hometown of Tikrit had led to the arrest of 260 people, including two former Iraqi army generals, a general from Hussein's personal security force and five other officers.

In the village of Ad Dawr, about 15 miles south of Tikrit, about 500 soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division's 1st Brigade were involved in the pre-dawn sweep that led to the arrest of the senior military officers loyal to Hussein.

In the northern city of Mosul, U.S. forces came under fire from looters and, in a separate incident, a soldier was grazed by a bullet near the bus station. No serious injuries were reported.

U.S. authorities also announced Thursday that a former Baath Party district chairman, Mahmud Gharib, who was No. 47 on the U.S. list of 55 most-wanted members of the Hussein regime, had been taken into custody.

At his news conference, Bremer said he would issue an order soon to block the participation of Baath Party members in any future government.

"Those who were on high before -- in particular the Baathists, who used their power to oppress the Iraqi people -- will be removed from office," Bremer said. The role of former Baathist officials in Iraq's future has been a nettlesome issue. Because they so dominated the government, dismissing all of them would increase the chaos, while keeping them smacks of hypocrisy.

Bremer also defended the record of his predecessor, retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who was replaced after just a few weeks on the job amid deteriorating security and accusations that he had failed to make his presence felt.

Bremer maintained that life had improved significantly outside Baghdad, noting that Iraqis generally have better access than ever to electricity. In Baghdad itself, however, he conceded that power distribution was running at only 40% to 60% of pre-war levels.

In one indicator of an improved environment in the south, British forces in the port city of Umm al Qasr formally handed over control to a local civilian government. It is believed to be the first such official transfer since the war ended.

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Marshall reported from Baghdad and Schrader from Washington.

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