Middle East

US still looking for a winning team
By Andrew F Tully

WASHINGTON - The United States government is making broad changes in its administration of Iraq in an apparent effort to calm an increasingly restive population.

A week ago, US President George W Bush announced that L Paul Bremer, a seasoned diplomat, would be taking over the US civil administration in Baghdad from retired US Major-General Jay Garner.

In other changes, Barbara Bodine, who was the de facto mayor of Baghdad, has been recalled. And at least three other senior US officials in Iraq are expected to leave soon. State Department spokesman Philip Reeker said the recalls are part of a routine staff rotation and do not reflect inadequate performance.

Meanwhile, crime and political unrest show few signs of abating one month after the fall of Baghdad. The most recent example of civic dissatisfaction came on Sunday when Grand Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim, the leader of Iraq's biggest Shi'ite Muslim political group, the Supreme Assembly for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), demanded that the United States end its efforts to set up an interim administration and withdraw so the Iraqis can govern themselves.

Hakim, who had returned from more than 20 years in exile, told a crowd in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah that the people of Iraq should be allowed to enjoy the same freedoms as Americans. "Do the Americans accept it if the English govern their country, even though they share a similar culture? How can we accept a foreign government whose language is different than ours, whose skin is different than ours? O brothers, we will fight and fight so that the government we have is independent, that it is Iraqi," Hakim said.

US officials have stated repeatedly that they are in Iraq only to help restore order after the overthrow of president Saddam Hussein. Bremer, arriving in Baghdad, reinforced that position. "The coalition forces did not come to colonize Iraq," Bremer said. "We came to overthrow a despotic regime. That we have 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."

Foreign-affairs analysts say it has long been known that Garner would be replaced by someone with more civilian-oriented credentials. But they say the departure of several of Garner's top aides makes it clear that Bremer's arrival signifies more than a planned personnel change.

Thomas Carothers is the co-director of the Democracy and Rule of Law Project at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace, a policy-research center in Washington. He said he believes the Bush administration now realizes it must revise its plans for setting up an interim government in Iraq, a task he called daunting.

Carothers said the United States faces a task that is vastly different from that which followed World War II. "This is not like reconstructing Germany and Japan after [that war]. There was not an effective central administration [in Iraq] that was already running the economy and things like that, as there had been in Germany and Japan. [In Iraq,] you're trying for the first time [to] create an administrative and governmental structure that would actually do a good job of running the country. That's nation-building. And you have this unusual situation of almost a complete political vacuum," he said.

In Iraq, Carothers said, even the political opposition to the now-overthrown government is either fragmented or returning from exile after three decades of repression. He said Iraq has a larger middle class of professionals than is found in many other Middle Eastern countries, but that does not mean they will be able to step in quickly and establish an efficient government and industrial sector.

"The problem is the middle class is being overshadowed by the looters and by the political tensions that are going on between the political groups who are already struggling for power. The middle class might be able to come out and begin to be effective in a more benign environment, but a well-educated engineer or a doctor or a lawyer sitting at home right now, unable to go out, or having had their office cleaned out by looters, isn't able to contribute very much," Carothers said.

In fact, Carothers said lawlessness in Iraq is the crux of the matter. He noted that both in the US and in Europe, much has been made of the military character of the fledgling administration in Iraq, even though its chief until now, Garner, is retired from the US Army. Many Westerners have applauded the appointment of Bremer, who is a career diplomat, not a career soldier.

Carothers, however, said that is beside the point for Iraqis. If they are to abide a US presence in their country, he said, they do not care whether it is civilian or military, as long as it restores order. "America has been very preoccupied by getting a civilian in rather than a retired military [man], but I think the Iraqis are counting on the US military to provide security and order in their country. And I think these distinctions are probably less important to people in Iraq, and it's more about the international image of the occupation that we're trying to project," Carothers said.

Anthony Cordesman specializes in strategic issues at the Center for Strategic and International Studies, another Washington think-tank. He said the US has so far failed to bring civil order to Iraq because it did not - or could not - properly assess the scope of the job long before the fighting began in March.

"Frankly, if you look at the warnings given by the study groups in the [US government's] interagency community, the fault lies really within the office of the secretary of defense and the National Security Council. There was weak coordination, and we were simply unprepared. And frankly, General Garner and his staff were neither of the [proper] size, nor did they have the background and translators to perform their duty," Cordesman said.

Further, Cordesman said, US ineptitude is responsible for the suspicion harbored by many Iraqis that the United States is not interested in their well-being but in exploiting Iraqi oil and establishing a military presence in the Middle East.

And for this, according to Cordesman, Bush has no one to blame but himself. "One of the other key faults that I think has to be ascribed directly to the White House, and frankly to the president, is that Iraqis simply do not know what the US intends to do in Iraq," he said. "There's no clear plan in terms of energy or the economy or the political structure. And as a result, people have been filled with conspiracy theories."

Cordesman said that, against this poor planning, Bremer has a difficult task ahead of him. He described Bremer as "remarkably competent", but he added that six months of what he calls sloppy coordination may put even so skilled a diplomat at a disadvantage.

(Copyright 2003, RFE/RL Inc. Reprinted with the permission of Radio Free Europe/Radio Liberty, 1201 Connecticut Ave NW, Washington, DC 20036.)
 
May 15, 2003



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