BAGHDAD -- The U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq insisted Sunday that attacks by Saddam Hussein’s supporters will not derail reconstruction efforts, even as he cautioned that such violence may reach the level of terrorism.
The risk of such an escalation will probably increase as the Americans and British bring greater normality to the country, L. Paul Bremer III said in a wide-ranging interview.
“The enemies are worried that we are succeeding, and I think that as we succeed, we have to anticipate that we’ll continue to see attacks, and indeed we may see an escalation to terrorism,” he said. “These are people who don’t want the coalition to succeed in making people’s lives better.”
Bremer has extensive experience with the issue of terrorism, having served as ambassador at large for counter-terrorism in the Reagan administration. In 1999, he became chairman of the National Commission on Terrorism; the panel reported its findings in 2000. Still, Bremer underscored that neither the attacks nor Iraq’s decrepit infrastructure, which will require a large, long-term investment, will deter the U.S. from its commitment to rebuild the country.
“It isn’t going to stop our reconstruction. We’ll soldier on and we’ll continue catching bad guys,” he said. “We’re going to give Iraqis a better life.”
Since arriving in Iraq in mid-May, Bremer has been working to restart the Iraqi economy and its oil and gas industry and revive public services, including electricity, telephones and water.
His appointment came after widespread criticism of his predecessor, retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who was rarely seen in public among Iraqis and whose team seemed unprepared for the chaos in Iraq.
Bremer has made it a point to travel widely, appearing frequently in public in his suit and tie, an anomaly in a country where the midday June temperature routinely hits 110. He has also made an earnest, if not entirely successful, effort to communicate the civil administration’s policies to the Iraqi people.
On Sunday, he sketched a picture of a resolute American occupation force that would stay the course and whose civilian staff would be expanding significantly in the coming weeks. Bremer said he had requested “several hundred” additional staff and expects to have “representatives of the coalition in all of the governorates, all of the major towns.”
However, he also acknowledged that the coalition faces substantial difficulties as a result of the spate of attacks on soldiers, on basic services, such as power lines, and most recently on Iraqi civilians who are helping the administration.
“We’re not panicking,” he insisted, seemingly relaxed, as he sat in his high-ceilinged, bookshelf-lined office in one of Hussein’s palaces on the Tigris River. The shelves are bare, partially covered by large maps of Iraq; his desk has a computer on it as well as a plaque that reads: “Success has a thousand fathers.”
Clearly, though, Bremer is frustrated by delays in moving the reconstruction forward and by accusations that the coalition failed to plan well enough for the occupation.
“We have a clear strategy. It is very difficult to execute, especially when you’ve got people trying to disrupt it with attacks,” he said.
“They are trying to undo the victory we won militarily,” Bremer said of Baath Party loyalists and the Saddam Fedayeen, a paramilitary force loyal to the former Iraqi leader. U.S. authorities blame the groups for at least some of the ongoing attacks.
“They attack coalition forces because they are the mechanism by which we provide security to the Iraqi people. They attack economic targets because it disrupts our ability to provide basic services to the Iraqi people,” he said.
“I’m not yet prepared to say we have a new phase here, but they may be targeting civilians as a way to intimidate people from working on reconstruction.”
In the last week, there were two episodes in which individuals working with the electrical authority were targeted. Two were killed and two injured.
Bremer described the level of organization as “small-scale. Five or eight guys conduct an attack, which again suggests that they are probably ex-Fedayeen. They are professional, but we still don’t see any central organization, not to say it won’t emerge.”
Even if it is possible to stem the attacks, Bremer said, the reconstruction will take “a lot of money and a lot of time.”
“Although Iraq is a rich country, we’re not very rich right now because of the devastation to the economy over the last 30 years. Basically these guys didn’t invest in anything except the military and the palaces,” he said.
As he talked about the hurdles Iraq faces in realizing its potential, Bremer -- perhaps unconsciously -- used the pronoun “we” when referring to Iraq, suggesting that he, and perhaps the Bush administration, already feels pride as well as a certain proprietary connection.
“While we are eventually going to be a rich country -- because we’ve got oil, we’ve got water, we’ve got fertile land, we’ve got wonderful people -- we’re going to need some bridging money from the international community over the next several years,” he said. “We are not going to fix this economy overnight, but we are here and we are going to see it through.”