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Bremer Cites Iraq Progress

U.S. administrator sees improvement from last spring's chaos. Iraqis are not as impressed.

March 25, 2004|Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — With three months to go before he is to hand power back to Iraqis, the Bush administration's proconsul in Baghdad looks at the chaotic country he was charged with midwifing into democracy and sees progress: thousands of new police, an interim constitution, rising supplies of electricity.

Yes, he acknowledges, security remains a major problem, with bombings, shootings and other attacks killing Iraqis and Americans almost daily. But in contrast to the bleak assessments of many U.S. analysts and Iraqis, the picture repeatedly painted by L. Paul Bremer III has more light than dark.

"What a difference a year can make in the life of the Iraqi people," Bremer said in a major address Wednesday, citing improvements ranging from vaccinating children to introducing a new, stable currency. "Almost a year after liberation, we should take heart from what has already been accomplished."

As U.S. civilian administrator, Bremer has some personal stake in emphasizing the occupation's achievements rather than its shortcomings. But the difference between his optimistic outlook and the searing critiques of many people here may be better explained by the fact that Bremer's assessment starts from the chaos he found when he arrived in Baghdad after weeks of war and looting -- whereas Iraqis tend to look back on their prewar lives.

"I arrived here in early May," Bremer recalled in a speech last week. "As I flew in from the airport ... there was no traffic in the streets of Baghdad other than coalition military vehicles -- Humvees, tanks, Bradleys [fighting vehicles]. There were no private cars. There was not a single policeman on duty anywhere in the country. There was no electricity in most of the country. We were generating about 300 megawatts of power. There was no economic activity....

"We worked, even here in the Green Zone, without power, without water, without communications for more than a month. And of course the people of Iraq suffered more," he said.

Now, he counts tens of thousands of Iraqi police, an army in training, and a civilian defense corps that together number nearly 200,000.

"We have 500 courts operating now. All of the prisons have been reopened, and we're building more," he said. "The economy is turning over. We believe that unemployment, which was around 60% before liberation, is now 30%."

He cited other signs of progress: electricity and oil production are up to prewar levels, and he expects that electricity output will increase by 50% more by June 1, just as the summer heat begins to become unbearable.

But in interviews, many Iraqis -- particularly those in Baghdad and Sunni Muslim areas favored under Saddam Hussein's regime -- say they feel their lives were as good, if not better, before the war -- and marked by far less uncertainty.

So when Bremer touts the fact that electricity and oil production are back to prewar levels, many Iraqis -- even those glad to be rid of Hussein -- shrug: They had hoped for far more.

And when Bremer notes that sabotage of the country's electrical infrastructure and its pipelines has dropped considerably from last fall, many Iraqis note that they never had such problems under Hussein.

When questioned, many Iraqis do agree with Bremer that Iraq's newfound freedoms and more-open economy are a vast improvement over the repressive controls of Hussein's regime. But political matters tend to be considered secondary to issues such as jobs, electricity and crime.

In Bremer's view, it is Hussein -- rather than the U.S. -- who is primarily to blame for many of the problems Iraq has had to struggle with in the last year. Asked whether U.S. planning for the postwar period could have anticipated some of the problems, he sidestepped the question.

"I was a businessman during the war," said Bremer, who was plucked from the private sector for the post in Baghdad. "I wasn't in the U.S. government."

One thing Bremer and many Iraqis readily agree on is that the most serious danger is the lack of security, which like an insidious undertow threatens to pull down the country's still-embryonic democratic institutions and economy.

"On the security front we've still got work to do, there's no question," Bremer said.

Bombings are threatening to create sectarian strife between different religious communities. Attacks on Iraqi police are shaking the public's faith in the ability of any new government to protect the people.

And security troubles are slowing economic development and reconstruction by driving up the costs of working in Iraq, senior coalition officials have noted.

The depths of the security problem were evident this week when Bremer met with civic leaders in the southern city of Najaf.

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