The Final Word on Iraq's Future
Bremer Consults and Cajoles, but in the End, He's the Boss
By Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Bremer posed with local leaders during last week's visit to Hilla.
While he was there, he attended an agricultural meeting and visited
Hilla Islamic University.
(Marco Di Lauro -- Getty Images)
Washington Post Foreign Service
Wednesday, June 18, 2003; Page A01
KIFL, Iraq -- The
search for local political talent brought L. Paul Bremer out for a
bone-jarring drive across Iraq's central farmland and lunch from a
communal plate of yellow rice topped with a sheep's skull.
Bremer, America's viceroy in Iraq, was the guest of Sheik Ali Mohammed
Abbasi of the Bani Hassan tribe, the leader of hundreds of thousands of
Shiite Muslims. The sheik welcomed Bremer as a head of state, ushering
him into a long room lined with 50 tribal chieftains. As the men sized
up Bremer during a one-hour chat earlier this month, he considered the
sheik as a candidate for a new national political council.
In the end, a bond was forged. "We are with you," the sheik declared.
Dispatched to Baghdad five weeks ago by President Bush to lead the U.S.
effort to rebuild Iraq, Bremer has emerged not just as the day-to-day
administrator of the occupation but also as the central architect of
Iraq's political future. He is using negotiation, persuasion and
outright fiat to recruit a new crop of leaders who he hopes will lead
the country of 25 million people toward democracy.
until then -- national elections could be two years away -- Bremer has
made clear that he is in charge. Over the past few weeks, he has signed
a range of far-reaching executive orders to waive import tariffs, seize
Baath Party assets, ban heavy weapons and claim licensing power over
telecommunications services. When several college presidents asked him
to lift a travel ban that had been imposed on academics by Saddam
Hussein's government, Bremer promised to do so by the end of the day.
"As long as we're here, we are the occupying power," he said in an
interview in the vast Republican Palace on the banks of the Tigris
River, which used to be the seat of government under Hussein and is now
Bremer's home. "It's a very ugly word, but it's true."
Bremer's influence has made him the most powerful man in Iraq -- and
perhaps the most powerful American overseas since Gen. Douglas
MacArthur oversaw the reconstruction of Japan after World War II. "This
whole mission is riding on Bremer's ability to pull it off," a senior
U.S. official here said.
In many ways, Bremer is an
unlikely choice. Although he is a former ambassador and a terrorism
specialist, he has had little involvement in Arab affairs or with major
reconstruction projects. Before coming to Iraq, he headed a crisis
Bush administration officials turned to
Bremer to replace Jay M. Garner, a retired Army lieutenant general
whose efforts were overwhelmed by the chaos that descended on postwar
Iraq. They said Bremer's appointment appealed to both the State
Department and the Pentagon, which have feuded over Iraq policy,
because of his diplomatic experience, his belief in aggressive action
to deal with terrorism and his close relationship with prominent
conservatives, particularly former secretary of state Henry A.
Bremer maintains that his lack of specialized
experience has made him an independent operator. "I don't come with any
philosophical baggage one way or the other," he said. "I approach it as
a fresh issue." He said he makes decisions based on the advice of his
U.S. and British staff members and Iraqis he consults, and on his
experience as a diplomat and businessman.
"When I came out here, the president said, 'Go out and make an
assessment, and draw your own conclusions about what we should do,' "
Bremer said. "My judgment after we got here was that most of the Iraqis
I spoke to were anxious to get something done rather quickly."
first moves have been bold. He rejected arguments from some in the
Pentagon that authority should be handed over to former exiles. He also
rejected the contention of many regional experts that Iraqis be allowed
to choose a transitional administration. Instead, he decided to slowly
devolve power through an advisory council of 25 to 30 Iraqis, whom he
intends to select.
Bremer will also control the council,
which he wants to shape a new government by selecting delegates for a
constitutional convention. He also envisions the panel grappling with
issues such as rewriting textbooks and setting trade policies, instead
of deferring those decisions to an elected government. Although he
promised to "broadly accept their recommendations," he has warned he
will veto any of the council's decisions that "are fundamentally
against coalition interests" or not in the "better interests of Iraq."
He is purging members of the former ruling Baath Party from government
jobs with the assumption that they will fade away instead of
regrouping. And he is examining plans to overhaul the economy by
privatizing scores of government-owned firms, a move that could
increase efficiency but eliminate thousands of jobs.
Tuesday, Bremer said the U.S. occupation authority would set up a
commission to screen judges for human rights violations and links to
the Baath Party leadership. In addition, he said the authority would
establish a special court to try people accused of committing serious
crimes since the war began on March 19 but who are not classified as
prisoners of war.
The court, which will have Iraqi judges
and prosecutors, will follow sections of the national criminal code
passed in 1969 and 1971, and suspects will also have the right against
self-incrimination and the right to an attorney. A U.S. official here
said the new court would probably try many of the people detained in
raids over the past week aimed at suppressing armed resistance to the
On Baghdad's streets, away from the small
groups of English-speaking professionals and well-connected political
leaders with whom Bremer often talks, many Iraqis said they feared his
agenda was a way to prolong the U.S. presence here and delay
"Mr. Bremer doesn't understand what the
people want," said Ahmed Abbas, a bookseller. "Most people, I think,
would be willing to allow the Americans to provide security and
assistance with rebuilding, but they want Iraqis to make the decisions.
This is our country."
Although Bremer contends that
conditions in Baghdad have "improved significantly" since his arrival
-- more shops are open, government employees are being paid, gas lines
are almost nonexistent, garbage is being collected and more police
officers are on the streets -- he is concerned about meeting
expectations. Unemployment is rampant, as is fear of crime. Electrical
service is intermittent, and work has not begun to repair scores of
government buildings gutted by looters immediately after the war.
"This country went from night to day at literally lightning speed, so
the process of repairing its economic, political and, I would say, even
its psychic capital is not going to be done overnight," he said.
Focus on Terrorism
Known as Jerry to his friends, Lewis Paul Bremer was born in Hartford,
Conn. He received a bachelor's degree in history from Yale University
and a master's in business administration from Harvard. He joined the
State Department and was stationed in Afghanistan, Malawi and Norway.
After serving as ambassador to the Netherlands from 1983 to 1986, he
was named President Ronald Reagan's ambassador-at-large for
Bremer, who is married and has two grown
children, retired from the government in 1989 to become a managing
director of a consulting firm run by Kissinger, for whom Bremer had
served as an executive assistant in the 1970s. As concern about
international terrorism grew in the 1990s, Bremer spoke and wrote
extensively on the subject, warning that radical Islam posed an
imminent risk to the United States.
After the Sept. 11,
2001, terrorist attacks, he became a regular guest on television talk
shows. A month later, he was named chairman and chief executive of the
crisis consulting arm of insurance giant Marsh & McLennan Co., and
last year, he was appointed to Bush's Homeland Security Advisory
Although he had not been a prominent advocate of
confronting Hussein, he adopted a more hawkish stance after the 2001
attacks. In January, he concluded an op-ed piece in the Washington
Times by stating: "Regime change in Iraq, long a sponsor of terror,
would be an excellent way to bring home to friends and foes that we are
serious about terrorism and show that opposing the United States has a
Although his role as administrator of the
Coalition Provisional Authority -- the formal name of the U.S.-led
occupation administration -- does not give him control over U.S.
military forces in Iraq, he does receive regular security and
intelligence briefings. The increasing frequency of attacks against
U.S. troops has become one of his top concerns, a U.S. official said.
A trim, 61-year-old former triathlete who appears a generation younger,
Bremer usually wakes at 4:45 a.m. At 5, he goes running for about 20
minutes on the palace grounds, covering about 21/2 miles.
By the time his daily staff meeting starts at 7 a.m., he has read the
morning newspapers on the Internet -- often printing out articles of
interest for his deputies -- and has gone through overnight
correspondence from the United States. Although he and his staff remain
in close contact with officials at the White House, State Department
and Pentagon, often holding conference calls late into the evening, he
appears to have a broad mandate from Washington.
Rumsfeld's lackey," said a person familiar with the occupation
authority's decision-making, referring to Defense Secretary Donald H.
Rumsfeld. "He has a great deal of freedom to do what he thinks is
Bremer contends his plan for an appointed council
does not mean he has backed away from the formation of a democratic
government. "If we just slap together something quick -- even though
that may be what some people want -- it's not going to work," he
insisted. "I am committed to establishing a democracy here. But to do
this right, it will obviously take time."
Although he plans
to offer seats on the council to several established political figures,
U.S. officials here said he also will anoint some tribal sheiks and
Iraqis with liberal religious and social beliefs with the goal of
increasing their profile as future national leaders and muting the
growing influence of conservative Shiite clerics.
"Every Iraqi should be able to look at the council and see themselves represented there," he said.
To persuade Iraqis of the wisdom of his course, Bremer has hit the road
almost every day in an armored Chevrolet Suburban. Dressed in a dark
suit and tie despite the 110-degree heat, with a white handkerchief in
his breast pocket, he has been to schools, hospitals, local government
offices and even a tribal conclave. At times, crossing the street to
shake a man's hand or hoisting a young boy onto his lap, he seems like
a politician. At other times, he displays the reticence of a career
diplomat, reading briefing papers in his car.
Much of his
time is spent inside the Republican Palace, which is off-limits to all
but a few Iraqis. He sleeps there on a wooden cot covered with a
mosquito net, in a tiny room that lacks air conditioning and looks over
a row of portable toilets. He said he would rather live and work
somewhere else because he does not like "the impression of the new
rulers coming in and occupying the rather lavish seats of power of the
An avid reader of history, he said he has been
studying the reconstruction of Germany and Japan after World War II. A
major conclusion he has drawn is that progress in Iraq has been
"We are actually, in most areas,
going faster than was the case in Germany and Japan . . . talking about
when elections might be held and starting the constitutional process,"
Even so, he said, "this is going to be a long,
difficult job. It's going to take a lot of patience. We will make
mistakes. But as we make them, hopefully we'll learn from them and
2003 The Washington Post Company
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