BAGHDAD, Iraq—The former U.S. ambassador brought in to revamp America's foundering reconstruction efforts in Iraq vigorously defended the occupation plans Thursday and rejected suggestions that the United States has allowed the capital to descend into criminal chaos.
With gunshots echoing outside and black smoke from a looted building rising in the distance, L. Paul Bremer III rejected widespread perceptions in Baghdad that the United States is allowing crime to go unchecked.
"This is not a country in anarchy," Bremer said at his first news conference since arriving in Iraq on Monday. "People are going about their business. They are going about their lives."
Bremer's appointment is designed to bring a stronger, more politically savvy hand to America's reconstruction effort. The failure to get a handle on crime has stymied U.S. efforts to push the reconstruction plans along and has cast a pall over the mood of many capital residents.
"What is happening to our town?" bank manager Ekram Mohammed lamented as she arrived for work Thursday morning after hearing more stories overnight about kidnappings. "Bush said there would be peace, but there is none."
Bremer acknowledged such concerns, but said military forces were preparing to put more soldiers and police on Baghdad's streets to get the problem under control. The former ambassador to the Netherlands denied reports that he had floated the idea of shooting looters to send a new tough-on-crime message.
Part of the plan to increase security and policing is to retain U.S. troops who were deployed earlier this year.
On Thursday, the Army's 3rd Brigade, 3rd Infantry Division—amid preparations for returning home to Fort Benning, Ga.—learned that its deployment in Iraq had been reclassified as "open-ended." Brigade public affairs spokesman Maj. Andrey Tymniak said V Corps headquarters, which is supervising the 3rd Brigade's operations, had set no return-home date.
"The only thing we know right now is that we'll be here longer than expected," Tymniak said.
As Bremer spoke, looters a few blocks away were scrambling through the skeleton of the Ministry of Information, which caught fire as they scavenged the ravaged building. Outside, weary U.S. soldiers watched the smoke rise above the building and shrugged. They used to arrest looters and take them to a makeshift detention center nearby, where they would be set free within hours. Now they simply watch the looters from afar and wait for fire engines that never arrive. None of the soldiers had heard that their top commander announced plans Wednesday to hold looters for 20 days.
Along with tackling crime, Bremer announced plans to block key members of deposed President Saddam Hussein's political party from returning to power.
"Those that were on high before, particularly the Baathists who used their power to oppress the Iraqi people, will be removed from office," said Bremer, the new civilian administrator of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
In the early weeks of its rebuilding effort, the United States has drawn criticism for allowing well-connected members of Saddam's Baath Party to return to positions in key government agencies across Iraq. Such appointments have sparked protests and outrage from Iraqis who view top Baath Party officials as too closely tied to the former regime.
"I think it's a very big mistake not to de-Baathify Iraq, but to re-Baathify Iraq," Entifadh Qanbar, of the opposition Iraqi National Congress, said earlier this week. "The Baath Party will make a comeback if they don't prevent them from doing so."
But the issue remains murky for the occupying forces. Everyone from university professors to top government bureaucrats was required to join the party to move into key leadership positions.
Because of that, the United States has allowed scores of party officials to return to their posts. With key choices coming under fire, however, Bremer said he was preparing to revamp that policy. The details of the plan are being worked out, but the Iraqi National Congress has been urging the United States to bar an estimated 30,000 Baath Party members.
The U.S. Central Command reported Thursday that Ibrahim Ahmad Abd al Sattar Muhammad al Tikriti, the former chief of staff of the Iraqi Armed Forces General Staff and Army, is in custody. He was No. 13 on the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqi leaders.
Fadil Mahmud Gharib also is in custody. A former Baath Party official, he was No. 47 on the list.
Elsewhere, U.S. soldiers from the 4th Infantry Division captured about 250 prisoners in an early morning raid at an undisclosed village near Tikrit, Saddam's hometown.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent S. Thorne Harper in Baghdad contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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