Bremer Looks on the Bright Side

Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker
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Haim Handwerker
Haim Handwerker

NEW YORK - Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, the administrator of the coalition's provisional authority in Iraq, is currently facing a task that seems almost impossible. At a time when American military officers are already prepared to accept a reality they did not want to admit to in the past - that a guerrilla war is being waged against them in that country - Bremer is meant to be building a new Iraq.

Every day American soldiers are being killed, the Pentagon is considering enlarging the military presence in Iraq and divisions of soldiers that were supposed to have come home recently received notices that they must stay.

Bremer prefers to view his cup as half full. He says that the war currently taking place against American soldiers is not an expression of the sentiments of all Iraqis toward the United States, and calls those who are attacking American forces a small minority which are operating only in a limited area. He explains that they are small groups of professional assassins, Baath Party members, Saddam Hussein's Fedayeen (guerrilla fighters), members of the Iraqi intelligence and the Republican Guard who want to turn the clock back. Bremer makes this determination based on interrogations of those who have been caught and examination of the background of the fighters whose bodies have been found.

Such information coincides with the analysis provided by American intelligence. Bremer believes that the U.S. is not facing a strategic threat in Iraq. The killing of Uday and Qusay Hussein dealt a heavy blow to Saddam's supporters, and Bremer is confident that it will not be long before Saddam himself is caught. The celebratory firing in the air by Iraqi citizens upon the announcement of Saddam's sons' deaths reinforces Bremer's opinion. In addition, more and more Iraqis are coming forward with information, whether to the Americans or to Iraqi units that make up the country's 32,000-man police force.

A plan to implement

Bremer, a professional diplomat, is a striking figure who assumed the position of civilian governor of Iraq about two months ago by emergency appointment. He took over from retired general Jay Garner, who turned out to be insufficiently authoritative and professional to enforce order in a complex country like Iraq. Bremer, on the other hand, served as an aide to six U.S. secretaries of state and, among other things, was the U.S. ambassador to Holland and was involved in coordinating antiterrorist operations at the highest levels.

Even though there are people who believe the U.S. is showing incompetence in Iraq - it often looks as if the Americans have become entangled there just as the Israelis have in the territories - Bremer disagrees. During a recent visit to the U.S., he assured members of the press that he has a plan that is being implemented on the ground with the aim of building a new, politically stable Iraq with a democratic regime, that will live in peace with its neighbors, free of terrorism and of weapons of mass destruction. When that plan has been implemented, the Americans will leave Iraq.

Bremer says that in another year it may be possible to hold free elections in Iraq, but the decision depends on the Iraqis themselves. It is not simple, he explained, to grant freedom to a people that lived under a reign of terror for so many years. It takes time to change the mentality of the citizens and accustom them to the fact that they are living in a free country.

The most important step in Bremer's eyes has been the appointment of a governing council some three weeks ago, a government of Iraqis under American auspices. The Americans were astounded by everything connected with the appointment of this government. The "natural" candidates were members of the exiled opposition, the most prominent of whom is Ahmed Chalabi, but it turned out that Chalabi and his college friends did not have enough support and that the opposition parties were divided.

In the end, Bremer took charge of establishing the government, which has 25 members: 14 men who had lived in Saddam's Iraq and 11 members of the exiled opposition. This government has a Shi'ite majority, proportionate with that in the Iraqi population.

At first the Americans wanted to establish an advisory council, but in light of the growing unrest and pressure from local leaders for greater authority, Bremer decided to set up a governing council and give it substantial powers, from responsibility for the preparation of a budget for 2004 to the appointment of overseas representatives. The most important recent appointment was of Iraqi ambassador to the United Nations.

The first step

Bremer thinks that under the current circumstances, this is a government that best represents Iraqi society. It is clear, however, that its formation is not the last word, but rather just the first step. The new government's most important task is to set up an assembly that will determine the country's new constitution. This constitution cannot be written behind closed doors and must be presented to the local councils and other organizations for an open discussion and debate reflecting the sentiments of Iraqi society. After all, says Bremer, the Iraqis will have to live with the constitution for many years after the coalition forces quit Iraq.

"We will help them with whatever they need and will encourage a broad debate," Bremer explains. "After the constitution is approved via a referendum, free elections will be held in Iraq." He would like these elections to be held in another year, but the timetable will depend on a decision by the governing council. This council is viewed as a puppet body by the Arab states, which have still not recognized it.

The mass media in the Arab world are also cynical with respect to the governing council, but this does not bother Bremer. The Arab regimes that do not recognize this government and the newspapers that criticize it used to support Saddam Hussein, and Bremer's expectations from them are therefore quite low.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Anan, on the other hand, has decided to give his support to the new government, and its representatives have even appeared before the UN Security Council. Iraq now has 29 functioning diplomatic representations.

"We have to give the ruling council a chance to work," says Bremer. "It is only a few weeks old. Some of the members of this government do not even know one another."

It is not easy to get life back on track in Iraq, he adds. "Our biggest problem is rehabilitating the shattered economy. It is hard to describe what Saddam did to this country over the course of 35 years. He destroyed and stole everything in it. He spent a third of Iraq's gross domestic product on the military and wasted money building palaces, leaving Iraq's economy at its level in the 1950s or '60s."

Destruction is evident everywhere. Thus, for example, the whole justice system has to be rebuilt. During Saddam's rule the entire system of detention centers and prisons operated under subhuman conditions; 50-75 men lived in a single room. Now, says Bremer, we are building new prisons that will house eight men per room. Before the war Saddam freed 120,000 prisoners, which means that the streets of Iraq are now teeming with criminals.

Even so, life is slowly returning to normal. The past two weeks have been good for Iraq. For the first time in 12 years, a uniform currency was declared. For the first time in the country's history, the establishment of a central bank was announced, with the purpose of directing the state's monetary policy. There is already an emergency budget for 2003; a municipal council of 37 members was chosen in Baghdad, with representatives from all sectors of the city's residents. Every big city in Iraq now has a municipal council, and 85 percent of the towns and villages have local councils.

Even though the U.S. is perceived by some to be isolated in Iraq, Bremer does not feel alone. There are currently military personnel from 18 other countries and a dozen other nations are considering sending soldiers. More than 20 countries have promised economic aid.

As to the question of weapons of mass destruction, Bremer says that there is a huge team of 1,300 American experts involved in the search, headed by David Kay, previously one of the heads of the UN inspection teams and a supporter of Saddam's ouster. Bremer firmly believes that it is only a matter of time until proof of programs to produce chemical and biological weapons is found.

Regarding the actual existence of chemical and biological weapons, Bremer himself has been more cautious in his statements. He talks about programs, not weapons. This is either due to discretion or to the dawning realization by senior officials in the American administration that these weapons, which were one of the main causes of the war, may never be found.