L. Paul Bremer III’s last field trip before he handed sovereignty to Iraqis on Monday and left the country exemplified both the U.S. ambitions for a new society and the reluctant accommodation of grimmer realities that were the hallmarks of his 13-month tenure as Iraq’s proconsul.
His visit here Sunday was a mixture of altruism and public relations: a final checkup on three experiments in democracy-building that he supported over the last year and that he hoped would be remembered as part of his legacy. Uncharacteristically, the trip ended with a fleeting and rare display of emotion from Bremer -- perhaps a quiet acknowledgment that his many plans for Iraq had barely taken root.
For all of its more subtle moments, the visit was, as usual, carried out in full force-protection mode. Bremer, surrounded by private guards who leaned with M-4 rifles out of his Black Hawk helicopter -- itself accompanied by Apache helicopter gunships -- swooped into this dusty town about 60 miles south of Baghdad. Just 13 hours earlier, a car bomb exploded in a crowded street here, killing 40 Iraqis and injuring dozens.
The Hillah University for Humanitarian, Religious and Scientific Studies, the Regional Democracy Center and the Memorial to Mass Grave Victims are not the kind of grand projects likely to be highlighted in congressional testimony. Their modest scope offers a pointed reminder that the Coalition Provisional Authority, which Bremer headed, had to scale back its plans for bringing about social change. Still, these new institutions -- if they grow -- will reflect real accomplishments that Bremer can point to when he insists that the U.S.-led occupation administration has changed some things for the better.
Bremer first encountered the mass graves at Mahaweel, outside Hillah, within a week of his arrival in Iraq in May 2003, and they made a deep impression on him. Although he must have known of the graves’ existence before his arrival, the enormity of what they represented seemed to sink in only after he saw them for himself. At one point he held several screenings of a documentary on Iraq’s mass graves at the Republican Palace in Baghdad, which housed the headquarters of his administration.
On that first visit to Hillah, he met Sayyid Farqad Qizwini, a Shiite Muslim cleric and former underground opposition leader during the regime of Saddam Hussein, who was far more open than most clerics to the American plan for democratizing Iraq. Qizwini had plans of his own. He wanted new projects funded, including a university, and jobs created. Bremer wanted to see democracy projects get off the ground, and few places had the needed mix of sympathy for the American endeavor and a relatively safe environment.
The result was a marriage of common interests that brought Bremer to Hillah and its environs perhaps more frequently than to almost any other area in Iraq: He made four or five visits to the city and several more to neighboring towns.
Qizwini was his host again Sunday. The tall, broad cleric escorted Bremer through a photo exhibit of the Mahaweel mass grave site, where about 15,000 Iraqis killed during Saddam Hussein’s rule are believed to be buried. The university, started by Qizwini and teaching 200 students so far, has set up the exhibit in its front hall.
Bremer peered intently at each picture: skulls, soil with shards of bone, women in flowing black abayas prostrate over mounds of earth, their agony so evident that it seemed a viewer could hear them weep. He stared hard at a photograph that showed pile after pile of bone and earth spread on white sheets at the excavation site, and nodded with recognition.
“I visited this when I first came here,” Bremer said.
“This lady, this poor lady came to every grave,” said Qizwini, pointing to a photo of a woman in an abaya sitting, her arms reaching forward over a mound of earth. “At each excavation she would sit by the grave and say, ‘Is this my son? Is this my son?’ and no one answered her.”
Qizwini started to move on, but Bremer slowed him. “Did she ever find her son?” he asked.
“No, she did not,” Qizwini answered.
Next on the tour was the university’s translation department, a huge room with 25 Iraqis sitting at computers translating works billed as democratic from English, German, French and Spanish into Arabic. “Democratic” works turned out to cover a wide range, including Nobel Prize winner Heinrich Boll’s first novel, “Der Zug War Punktlich” (“The Train Was on Time”), and an Internet biography of Miguel de Cervantes. It was unclear whether there was a unifying theme.
One man was translating the U.S. Constitution. Others had translated books by Stanford University professor Larry Diamond, who had come to Hillah to lecture on democracy to tribal leaders.
In a nearby room, students were learning to use the Internet. Bremer wandered through, making polite inquiries. Perhaps intrigued by one young man’s screen saver -- an image of Stonehenge, a place both Western and pagan -- Bremer asked what he was researching. The man smiled bashfully and said: “I am studying lectures on religion. I am looking at some Shia websites.”
Across a short stretch of scrubland stands the building that houses the Regional Democracy Center. It once belonged to members of Hussein’s Baath Party and was a mere shell at the end of the war, according to coalition media officers. It now looks new and has a large auditorium -- with icy air-conditioning -- and offices with blond-wood desks, computers, freshly painted walls and the kind of flat carpeting one might see in high-tech firms in Silicon Valley. Dozens of people work in the center, which helps to satisfy Qizwini’s goal of creating jobs. But it has a Potemkin village feel, the sense of a place that is not really rooted in Hillah.
It was here, in the auditorium, before a few center employees and the clerics who had accompanied him on his tour, that Bremer said farewell to Iraq. Twenty-four hours later, he would climb into a C-130 transport plane without a word of goodbye to the Iraqi people -- a sign that in the place he ruled for a year, he was too much of a marked man to risk a public appearance.
But in this moment, in the auditorium, he seemed to speak from the heart in a tone that expressed anger at the doubters who had said the American goal of creating democracy in Iraq was not worth the effort, yet was thankful that, in at least one city, someone had responded positively to U.S. efforts to create a Western-style civil society.
“There are people outside Iraq who think it’s a dream to create” a democratic, pluralistic nation, he said. “There are people outside Iraq who still insist it was wrong to overthrow Saddam.
“And to both of those groups of people I say: ‘Come to Hillah. Come to Hillah first to see the mass graves and know why it was right to overthrow Saddam. Come to Hillah and see that the dream of a peaceful and democratic Iraq can be realized by the good people of Iraq.’ ”
And then it was over. Bremer’s staff and guards hurried him out to his helicopter, which had landed in the Regional Democracy Center’s parking lot. The clerics and the workers crowded on the steps to say goodbye.
Bremer embraced Qizwini and kissed him on each cheek in the Arab way. As he turned away, Bremer’s eyes were wet.