BAGHDAD — In a ceremony cloaked in secrecy, US Ambassador Paul Bremer formally ended the US occupation of Iraq Monday, closing down the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) he has led for the past year.
The style of the transfer, hastily held two days ahead of schedule because of fears of a terrorist attack, was a fitting coda to Mr. Bremer's administration here. The CPA has repeatedly been forced to shift course by a deepening insurgency that has made it difficult to put US ideals into practice.
"To be blunt, we failed,'' says a CPA adviser, preparing to return home to the US. "I don't think you can blame Bremer. We just weren't prepared for what we were getting ourselves into."
When Bremer arrived here last May he came with stirring promises of leading Iraq to a prosperous and democratic future. Most Iraqis were still reveling in the euphoria generated by the toppling of Saddam Hussein. The US occupation would last, Bremer said, until a new constitution had been written and democratically elected leaders were ready to replace him.
Monday, with violence spreading and broad Iraqi discontent with the US occupation, Bremer handed power over to an unelected government without a new constitution. Bremer once said the ratification of such a constitution (enshrining minority rights and considerable autonomy to Iraqi Kurds) was a necessary step on the path to rebuilding the nation.
Those close to Bremer say he considers the absence of a constitution like the one the US helped write for postwar Japan his biggest disappointment.
That disappointment is one of many for the CPA, hamstrung in its early days by limited money (only $800 million was initially budgeted for reconstruction) and by overly optimistic assessments that Iraqis would take quickly to the brand of democracy and free-market capitalism the US still hopes to install here. It wasn't until after Bremer went before Congress last September that $18.6 billion was allocated. Only now are large amounts of that money being spent.
The delay proved decisive. Among a citizenry used to a centralized economy and a history of projects lavished on favorites of the old regime, it seemed as if the world's superpower was deliberately withholding aid, and resentment turned into anger.
Four CPA officials interviewed used the same phrase - "a window of opportunity was missed" - in discussing their regret that money didn't get to Iraqis during the early honeymoon period for the CPA.
While the CPA posts a long and impressive list of accomplishments - ranging from refurbishing schools and hospitals to constructing power plants and training thousands of Iraqis in the basics of democracy - surveys show that general goodwill among the public has largely been lost as most Iraqis are still waiting for more electricity, better security, and jobs.
"Reconstruction isn't about bridges or houses,'' says Imad al-Shibib, a senior adviser to Iraq's new Prime Minister Iyad Allawi, who sought to advise the CPA on policy here. "It's about the Iraqis themselves - salaries, money for their families. That was what was needed."
Any failures certainly weren't for lack of trying. The can-do Bremer, a former aide to US secretary of State Henry Kissinger and a senior diplomat focused on counterterrorism in the first Bush Administration, drove himself and his staff hard during his tenure, with one CPA advisers saying 16-hour days seemed like the "minimum" the ambassador put in.
In his trademark blazer and desert combat boots, Bremer endlessly toured the country by helicopter, held meetings with leading Iraqi political figures and, in his public statements, relentlessly stayed on message: The US could and would shepherd Iraq to democracy. America wouldn't be leaving until the job was done.
But that job has grown consistently harder as violence in the country, targeted especially at US officials and Iraqis working with them, soared.
When Bremer first arrived last spring, CPA officials still left the walled and guarded Green Zone for dinners at Baghdad restaurants, and US soldiers mingled with Iraqis at ice cream parlors. Today, going to the "red zone," as CPA officials referred to the Baghdad beyond their compound, is done only with heavily armed escorts. An initial plan by Bremer to move out of the former Hussein palace where most of the 1,000-odd CPA staff worked - which sent an unfortunate message to average Iraqis - was scrapped "when he came up against the reality of how bad security is here,'' says a senior CPA official. The new US embassy in Iraq will also be in the Green Zone.
As violence spread and their movement was limited, a wedge was driven between the CPA and the Iraqis they'd come to assist. Many Iraqi government officials came to see the CPA as arrogant and inflexible; many CPA officials came to speak of indolent and self-interested Iraqi counterparts.
"Do you know what it's like to, at great personal risk to yourself, to help set up an Iraqi council and then start to get pestered by its leader for favors?'' complains one CPA official who worked on democracy programs. "We got a gun permit for a councilor worried about his personal safety. Then he says, 'Get me a Glock,' because that was a more prestigious pistol than the one he had. What about what Iraq needs?"
The biggest failing of the occupation is Iraq's security problems, and many experts now say that perhaps the biggest American mistake was the US decision last Mayto disband the Iraqi army, a poorly equipped force of 400,000 that many key Iraqis now say could have been used to pacify the country.
"What you have to understand about Bremer was that he was a missionary, he thought he knows what's best for Iraqis,'' says Issam al-Khafaji, a former CPA adviser who now runs the Iraq Revenue Watch, a nonprofit group critical of CPA spending in Iraq. "He behaved autocratically and ignored good advice," he says.
The decision also put many Iraqis out of a job, and turned them on the US-led coalition, as did the extent of a US-backed program to "de-Baathify," the government, a process designed to remove roughly 60,000 Iraqis from their government jobs, among them 10,000 school teachers. Though these decisions were made in Washington, Bremer implemented them. The order to remove Baathists from government jobs was the first one he signed after arriving in May.
"Often Bremer was making the best of a bad situation,'' says one CPA adviser. "But in the end there were a lot of dumb policies that Bremer helped carry out. He has to bear some of the blame."
Those close to Bremer here continue to defend that decision, saying that there wasn't so much a decision to dissolve the military as the old Army simply melting away. "There was no army left to disband when we got here,'' says a Bremer aide. "There were 250,000-odd conscripts who had just gone home."
"We tried to tell Ambassador Bremer and the American government that this was a mistake - wisdom says that you never want to extend the circle of your enemies,'' says Mr. Shibib, who was a senior Iraqi military officer until his defection in 1990. "The Army should have been used and the de-Baathification limited to the real criminals, but they didn't listen. They were getting bad advice."
Mr. Khafaji and others speak of ambitious US efforts to transform the structure of Iraq's economy - highly centralized along an almost Soviet model - as misguided.
Countless man-hours were spent rewriting Iraqi laws along the radically free-market lines preferred by the current US administration. Many here expect these laws will be repealed or extensively modified once an elected Iraqi government comes to power, given that most Iraqis, with a legacy of socialist government approaches behind them, won't like them.
In the last CPA press conference, spokesman Dan Senor listed efforts to change Iraq's "proto-Stalinist" economy as major CPA achievements, speaking of limits on tax rates, an "unbelievably liberalized economy [and] in the long run a very foreign investment friendly environment." A senior CPA legal advisor defended the work done "as time well spent" and argued that the laws are unlikely to be repealed.
Former CPA advisers, past and present, say that American missionary zeal came at the expense of understanding a Byzantine Iraqi political culture composed of overlapping networks of tribes, friendships, and patronage that sometimes led the US astray, even when doing the right thing.
In Baghdad, one of the major gripes against the CPA is that electricity is down from prewar levels, averaging about 12 hours a day for the city's residents, as compared with about 20 hours before the war. That isn't because there isn't enough power in Iraq, but because Bremer's CPA decided to more equitably distribute power across the country.
Saddam systematically diverted power away from most Iraqi cities to the benefit of Baghdad and towns where he had strong support. But some CPA officials now wonder at the political wisdom of taking away power from a city that's home to a third of Iraq's 27 million people.
Now as the CPA leaves Iraq, US policy has come full circle. In recent months, US officials have sought to rehabilitate many former Baath officials and restore them to their old jobs, and large numbers of the former Iraqi army are being called up to the new Iraqi Army, which Prime Minister Allawi hopes to use against Iraq's insurgency. "We understand how security works here, we understand how the people work here,'' says Shibib. "We're going to get the country on the right course."
The key criteria - indeed practically the only criteria - that most Iraqis say they'll judge the interim government on will be if it can provide the security and stability that the CPA didn't.
"We're in the middle of a cultural and moral revolution," says Munir Al-Khafaji, a teacher sitting in a cafe in Baghdad's largely Shiite Karrada neighborhood who spent three years in Abu Ghraib prison for dissident activity under Hussein. "American soldiers can't tell friends from enemies here. We can. So I'm hoping we're going to be safer. But a lot of domestic political circumstances need to be settled - real change will come after elections."
2003: $6.3 billion
2004: $22.4 billion (projected)
OIL EXPORTS (barrels per day)
Now: 1.58 million
Prewar: 1.3 million
Prewar: 3,000 (2002)
Immediately after war: 60%
Renovated more than 2,500
Now: $120 a month (average)
Prewar: $5 to $66 a month
Now: Baghdad 9-15 hours a day,
most other areas 8 hours a day or less
Prewar: Baghdad up to 24 hours
a day, most other areas
4 hours a day
Now: $950 million
Prewar: $16 million (2002)
Troops in Iraq:
Iraqi security personnel: 226,765
US troops: 844
Coalition troops: 116
Iraqi military: 4,895-6,370 (est.)
Iraqi civilian: 9,436-11,317 (est.)
Iraqi Confidence in CPA
Nov. 2003: 47%
May 2004: 11%
Sources: Department of Defense, Coalition Provisional Authority, Newsweek, wire services, globalsecurity.org, iraqbodycount.net