Is Washington's new hard-nosed viceroy in Iraq — diplomat Paul Bremer — a stand-up comic? Blind as a bat? Or an artful liar? Shell-shocked Iraqis have been mulling the possibilities.
On balance, liar may be the least obnoxious answer.
Bremer blew into Baghdad this week heading a spanking new team of United States administrators. It was a bizarre, bloodless putsch of Americans by Americans that reflected some nasty political intrigue in Washington, a chaotic month-long military occupation in Iraq and catfights among top officials on the ground.
Having barely arrived, Bremer took a quick look around and offered the view that the man he had just replaced, Gen. Jay Garner, "has done an outstanding job" getting the capital back on its feet. Maybe so, but only if you discount the gunfire, murder, looting and chaos.
Perhaps Bremer was just being polite as he gave Garner the heave-ho.
Despite the presence of 50,000 U.S. troops in Baghdad, anarchy still prevails, as Bremer discovered yesterday when he began meeting United Nations officials and Iraqi opposition figures who are jockeying for seats on an interim government in the coming weeks.
There's no mayor, civic administration, functioning police force, phone service, street lighting, garbage pickup, reliable power, gasoline and water or semblance of order. There is cholera.
Museums have been pillaged. Hospitals and schools stripped of equipment. Bandits, arsonists and looters rule the night. People fear for their lives.
Even Garner concedes "it's not safe out there" in the city of 5 million.
Few Baghdadis have even seen their American governor, who has been holed up in Saddam Hussein's Republican Palace, speaking mostly to Washington-friendly Iraqi exiles and rolling through the streets in armored convoys.
Where order has been restored, Iraqis have done it themselves, hiring gunmen to guard shops, clinics, schools.
The Americans smashed Saddam's rotten regime in record time. But they have yet to assume their Geneva Convention responsibilities as an occupying power, to maintain order and to provide effective administration.
That was U.S. President George Bush's first betrayal of Iraqis.
Iraqis can only hope that Bremer — a diplomat skilled not at nation building, but counterterrorism — is not planning a second and worse betrayal by imposing a made-in-America "interim" administration stuffed with Washington-friendly figures like Ahmad Chalabi and Adnan Pachachi, who have been exiled for decades and who Iraqis barely know, much less trust.
Most Iraqis aren't anxious to swap Saddam, a dictator, for administrators imposed from abroad.
Roughly 14 million of Iraq's 24 million people are Shia Muslims, and any credible stopgap administration ought to be built around indigenous Shia leaders, with input from Iraq's 5 million Sunni Muslims and 5 million mostly Sunni Kurds.
There's no shortage of local leaders. Shia politicians and clerics are popping up in Baghdad and elsewhere to provide much-needed services.
But Washington dreads the rise of an Iranian-style Shia regime, and may be tempted to cast local Shia leaders only in supporting roles in the interim administration. That would infuriate the Shia majority, emboldening Ba'athist holdouts, terrorists and others to take up arms against the Americans and their perceived cronies. Better to woo Shia leaders from the get-go.
And looking ahead to a time when Iraqis will be able to organize free elections, form political parties, campaign for office and choose their own permanent government, Bush would be wise to invite the U.N. in to supervise the process and lend it legitimacy.
But there's no sign of that yet.
Instead, Bush wants the Security Council to endorse an open-ended American/British "Authority," with little U.N. input.
Yet Bush toppled Saddam promising to usher in democracy. That should mean letting Iraqis make their own choices, even their own mistakes. As soon as possible. And under impartial, international auspices.
Anything less would be the most painful betrayal of all.
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