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Difficulties Dampen Coalition's Optimism

June 27, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — After 13 months in Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III looks tired, his manner sober.

Although always pragmatic, his tone upon taking charge of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority was marked by optimism. Now, as he prepares to hand over sovereignty Wednesday, it is matter-of-fact.

He sees the road ahead and knows that there are many obstacles to achieving President Bush's goal of making Iraq a beacon of democracy in the Middle East.

In fact, he does not talk much about democracy these days. In a 35-minute interview last week in his heavily guarded office in the Republican Palace, the word "security" came up 11 times; the word "election" four times; the word "democracy" once.

Looking back, Bremer defended the decisions, urged by Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, to disband the Iraqi army and remove Baathists from their government jobs. They were necessary steps, he said, although he has since modified both orders. But he conceded that conditions in Iraq were not tailor-made for management from Washington.

"In certain areas, I found Washington's tendency to look over our shoulders and tell us how to do things sometimes did not really take into account local situations," he said.

"We had to pay great attention to the local circumstances, more perhaps than you would have to in a less fluid situation."

One of those local circumstances was the refusal by Shiite Muslim Iraqis to accept Bremer's original schedule for restoring sovereignty, which envisioned writing and ratifying a constitution before the country elected an independent government.

That would have meant putting off elections for at least two years -- far too long in the majority Shiites' view. As that impatience dovetailed with Washington's unease over increasing military casualties, Bremer's plan was jettisoned and the June 30 date put in place.

Another local circumstance was Iraqis' reactions to American troops who roughly searched their homes and their wives, stopped them at checkpoints and sometimes shot and killed relatives or neighbors.

"Iraqis would bring [these incidents] to my attention sometimes," he said.

At one point he asked Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the commander of U.S. troops in Iraq, if the military, in deference to Arab cultural norms, could use women soldiers to search Iraqi women.

"Well, about 10% of the combat force at that time were women. Therefore, it's not going to be possible to have women search women everywhere in the country, desirable though it might be," Bremer said.

Sanchez understood the situation but said the military could not respond to his request. "There it is," Bremer said. Again, matter-of-fact.

He said he still believed in the mission.

"There are things you wish had gone differently, but the important thing is Iraq is today a much better place than it was 15 months ago," he said.

He now sees how much every policy depends on stability.

"There's a lot more to do. We've had setbacks in security obviously, and that in turn has led to setbacks in things like electricity. But I was sent out here to do a job, and I was able in the course of the year to put in place ... a lot of ... political and economic structures that are still fragile, no doubt, but which can serve the Iraqis well."

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