It was just another day in the process of "getting Baghdad back to normal". Well, on this most normal of days when news was supposed to be slow, the US-appointed Health Minister finally resigned at the time of a steadily mounting public health crisis after a week of relentless pressure from doctors disgusted at his prominent past in the Saddam Hussein regime.
A senior State Department official turned up at the old Iraqi Police Academy to sack in person the self-appointed police chief for the whole of Iraq, with whom US forces had – initially – amicably worked. A huge fire in the Baghdad central telephone exchange went untended for most of the day despite – admittedly unconfirmed – reports that a potential survivor was still in the building. Nobody is yet collecting the rubbish that is still rotting in the city after a month. And Barbara Bodine, the very US official directly charged with "getting Baghdad to normal", has been peremptorily recalled to Washington.
It's hardly surprising that the grandly named and even more grandly sited (in the biggest of all Saddam Hussein's palaces in the city) US-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance is undergoing a rapid restructuring in preparation for the imminent arrival here of its new boss, the former head of US counter-terrorism, Paul Bremer. For if this really was a normal day in the Iraqi capital, Mr Bremer, who will report directly to the US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld rather than to the generals commanding the occupying forces, is going to have his work cut out.
Each of yesterday's episodes in its own way reflects the crisis of post-war Baghdad. Having spent three days trying in vain to contact Hamid Rahman, the former general with a senior position in the pre-war Ministry of Interior who had been identified as the potential Iraqi to run policing through the country, Bob Gifford, a State Department policing expert who did the same job in Afghanistan, turned up at the joint US military-police headquarters in person to confront Mr Rahman when he turned up around midday. Mr Gifford told him bluntly: "There is no control. We are not going to announce this appointment. I want you to go home until we contact you." Asked about this scene, witnessed by chance by the Independent, an ORHA official conceded that Mr Rahman was "not the right man for the job". His background as a senior functionary of the Baathist regime coupled with what one US Military Police officer called his tendency to run his "own mafia, taking big decisions we were paying for without consulting us" appears to be among the reasons for the sacking.
Captain Steve Caruso of the 18th Military Police Brigade is among those valiantly running the mere 12 joint patrols a day with US forces that can so far be mustered, given that in this lawless city of some five million only 4,000 former police officers, enticed by the so far one-off $20 emergency payment, have so far reported to the Academy in the much-heralded – by ORHA – return to work. "The quicker we can get the Iraqi police doing their job, the quicker the coalition forces can go home," he said. But Mr Rahman's dismissal, justified as it surely is, leaves a serious vacuum. A US Military Police officer said pregnantly that relations between the military and the local Iraqi police are slowly getting better, but that from his personal point of view "relations between the military and the civilians are getting worse."
The reasons were plain to see at the Police Academy. Up to 1,000 Iraqi civilians arrive each day trying to report anything from murders and rapes to complaints that the invading US forces commandeered the government trucks for which they had responsibility along with their essential identity documents. "There's virtually nothing we can do about any of this," the officer said. "All we are doing is sending people away pissed off, angry and swearing because we can't do anything."
But 80 per cent of the actual police stations, in which arrest policy was anyway centrally dictated by the regime, have been rendered unusable by looting. This week, two workers for the charity CARE were reportedly robbed at gunpoint and their cars stolen on the road from Baghdad International Airport to the city center. And there have been reports of AK-47s being used to kill motorists to steal their cars.
All this, of course, in a country whose prisons have been emptied of criminals by Saddam's infamous amnesty and the breakouts which came when Baghdad fell. The two murders a day reported at the Academy clearly leave wholly unaccounted for the results of the sporadic shooting throughout the city in the day at night.
"We just don't have visibility on a lot of that," the officer admitted. Security, of course, is the number-one concern of the vast majority of decent Iraqis. It has been dramatized by the looting which infuriates most Baghdadis.
But it isn't by any means the only problem. Yesterday's fire at the telephone exchange drew a large crowd of angry onlookers after the single fire engine that attended it ran out of water. Hussein Ali, a carpenter, said: "The Americans were here at 11am and they went away. An hour later the fire started. It is their responsibility to stop people going into the building. There are not enough people patrolling at night. We hated Saddam but at least under Saddam you could be safe. The Americans said they were coming to liberate the Iraqi people, not for the oil. But this is not liberation."
And as if the security crisis didn't already hamper NGOs trying to provide medical aid to the city's stricken hospitals, the burgeoning health problems were intensified yesterday by political turmoil. Ali Shnan al-Janabi, the former Baathist unwisely designated by the ORHA to run the health service, finally stood down after a week of pressure which culminated when on Saturday he was equivocal about his past in a TV interview.
It hardly matters whether Barbara Bodine was recalled because of a failure to overcome these problems or because – more likely – she came up against the Washington establishment when she complained as Ambassador to Yemen about the heavy-handed FBI investigation into the attack on USS Cole.
There are some effective things happening in parts of ORHA, such as the skilful weeding out of Baathists in the Ministry of Planning whose role in the regime was discovered by the tell-tale "special bonuses" on the payroll documents. But overall it has not done the job it was appointed to do.
This is why Jay Garner is going home and why Mr Bremer has a bigger job on his hands than perhaps even he realizes.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd