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Departure of Some Troops in Iraq Delayed

U.S. move comes amid a review of security in the country. The new civil administrator bans top Baath members from key government posts.

May 17, 2003|Tyler Marshall and Mark Fineman | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — The departure of several thousand U.S. Army troops from Iraq has been delayed pending the outcome of a comprehensive high-level review of security in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country, senior American military officials said Friday.

L. Paul Bremer III, the new U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, began the security review Friday night by convening senior members of his reconstruction agency, military commanders and prominent Iraqi political figures. The gathering was the highest-level discussion of its sort since the end of major combat operations last month.

"We have some urgent work to do together in restoring law and order all over Iraq," Bremer told reporters after the meeting.

John Sawers, the senior British civilian official in Iraq, who also attended the talks, described the security situation in parts of the capital as "bad."

"We recognize that, and we are taking action to address it," he added.

On Friday, Bremer signed an order banning senior members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from public-sector employment. The order decreed that the U.S.-led coalition will evaluate former Baath Party members for criminal conduct and to determine whether they pose a threat to the security of occupation forces. Officials said security concerns prompted the order.

An official for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, the agency administering Iraq, acknowledged that the ban issued by Bremer could further complicate efforts to restore efficient government institutions but said that evidence that organized Baathist groups were actively sabotaging efforts to restore social order had made the decree urgent.

"This is the cause for some -- not all -- of the law-and-order problem," said the official, who asked not to be named.

The measures conveyed a new sense of urgency on the part of U.S. authorities to rein in the lawlessness that has crippled efforts to improve conditions for Baghdad residents since allied troops declared victory.

The lack of law and order has shaken many Iraqis' belief that the fall of Hussein and the arrival of U.S. forces would bring a better life. The pervasive insecurity has disrupted the delivery of humanitarian aid, slowed the restoration of essential services and left many families in the capital struggling to regain a semblance of normality.

Although delaying the departure of some U.S. soldiers may help boost security, the decision generated dismay within the ranks of many Army units that have been deployed in Iraq. Military officers spoke about the delay on condition that the specific units affected not be identified, but they said several thousand troops are involved.

Senior Army officials expressed frustration at the slow pace of civilian reconstruction efforts. Although dozens of Army civil affairs teams are working daily in the capital to pay civil servants and perform tasks such as installing generators in orphanages, the officials see little progress on the multibillion-dollar reconstruction program.

"It's extremely frustrating for us," one senior military officer said. "We've lost some time."

U.S. civilian officials estimated that Friday's ban on public employment for senior Baathists would likely affect up to 5% of the party's 600,000 to 700,000 members but said the order would have a disproportionate impact at the highest government levels. Of the 10 categories of Baath Party members, those in the top four will be most affected by the ban.

One official indicated that the top three posts in all Iraqi government ministries, affiliated corporations and other government institutions had been filled by a total of about 2,000 Baath Party members.

Under Hussein, Baath Party membership was a de facto requirement for government jobs with major responsibility. U.S. officials said they were prepared to accept a degree of inefficiency to end the risks inherent in allowing senior Baathists to stay in influential posts.

"We want to make sure our objectives are not threatened by Baathist elements being able to come back into power," the ORHA official said. The official argued that the ban would be an important symbol to Iraqis -- demonstrating that U.S. authorities are serious about preventing any Baathist return.

The order gives Bremer discretionary power to exempt individuals from the ban on a case-by-case basis, but the ORHA official said Bremer expected to use that power sparingly.

"If someone is essential for a ministry and co-workers say the person was forced to join the party, then we can make an exception," the official said.

Bremer, who arrived in Baghdad this week, is replacing retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who has been abruptly sidelined after only a few weeks on the job.

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