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U.S. ousts official overseeing Baghdad reconstruction, tries to speed process

BAGHDAD, Iraq—With violent street crime on the rise, gas lines clogging roads from Kirkuk to Karbala, and thousands of Iraqis still living without power or clean water, America's efforts to rebuild this occupied nation are faltering almost before they get off the ground.

Tempers are flaring, frustration is building and the Pentagon's inability to get its arms around reconstruction is drawing fire from its own military leaders, Iraqis and humanitarian aid workers. All of them warn that patience is wearing thin.

"There is a growing sense of frustration that ORHA (the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance) is not getting the job done," said one senior military official in Iraq. "And we're running out of time."

Well aware of the pressure, ORHA has already launched a shakeup.

On Sunday, the official overseeing the reconstruction of Baghdad, Barbara Bodine, was abruptly reassigned back to Washington.

Retired diplomat L. Paul Bremer III was scheduled to assume control of ORHA and bring in a new crop of his own advisers. Bremer's arrival was expected to pave the way for the departure of retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the much-criticized ORHA leader.

Garner has called May a "make-or-break" month for the reconstruction effort, and there was broad agreement that much remains to be done.

Gas for cars and kitchens is almost impossible to find in some small towns, water and power remain in short supply, and Baghdad has been staggered by a new crime wave that has millions of residents on edge.

"Until now, the only thing we've heard from Jay Garner is talk," said Amar Abbass, a 24-year-old psychology student at Baghdad University. "Talk about security, talk about electricity, talk about power."

Working out of Saddam Hussein's ornate presidential palace, protected by soldiers and insulated from the society they are trying to rebuild, the Americans responsible for Iraq's renewal defend their actions and say they have made remarkable progress in the weeks since Baghdad fell.

Power is slowly coming back to major cities, there is plenty of food for most Iraqis, hospitals are back in operation, and schools are slowly reopening around the country.

"We absolutely understand that people are impatient," said one official, who did not want to be identified. "They have been released from 30 years of oppression and they want to see something to fill the void. We can't do it fast enough to satisfy their demands or our own expectations."

The incremental successes largely have been undercut by an inability to contain a wave of lawlessness sweeping Baghdad.

Humanitarian aid workers have been carjacked. Fearless gunmen block capital streets in broad daylight sizing up each passing car as a target. Residents trade stories of watching young women being kidnapped from busy Baghdad streets. Organized crime groups run smuggling and black markets.

In such a lawless environment, some American officials fear foreign terrorists might slip in. Last week, for example, Americans kept an eye on a group of Yemenis who showed up posing as diplomats. On Sunday, a vehicle was found in Baghdad containing explosives, possibly the makings of a car bomb, officials said.

The turmoil is threatening to paralyze the reconstruction effort.

"The whole place will explode if we don't have security," said Margaret Hassan, Iraq country director for CARE, an aid group that had two vehicles carjacked over the weekend. "It's a very, very serious situation, and I can't see anything moving forward until this is right."

While the major looting that followed the fall of Baghdad has tapered off, it has been replaced by more calculated crimes—kidnapping, carjacking and home invasion robberies. Baghdad residents have set up 24-hour guards at their houses. They drive their children to and from school and carry loaded weapons with them at all times.

It is possible to drive the streets of Baghdad for hours without seeing any police officers. Traffic cops stand helplessly by as cars zoom down the streets in the wrong direction. Soldiers seem to do little more than hunker down at strategic buildings around the city.

ORHA is struggling to get a handle on the situation, but the organization is hamstrung by the same problems that have paralyzed the nation: Gas for cars is hard to come by and expensive to buy; random street crime makes it difficult to move around safely; and the destruction of the communications system during the war has prevented officials from speaking easily by telephone.

"If I can get carrier pigeons from any of you, we can probably improve communication significantly," Lt. Col. Dan Robey told a group of humanitarian aid workers over the weekend.

The Defense Department is sending in Bremer to try to speed up reconstruction.

Garner appeared to take a low-key approach to his job. He avoided news reporters and spent little time with the Iraqi people. Some critics dubbed the reconstruction effort "Waiting for Garner," a play on Samuel Beckett's "Waiting for Godot."

ORHA's slow start means more work for the Army and Marines, who are itching to pack up and go home.

"Do I wish that they were in place yesterday? Sure," said Marine Lt. Gen. James Conway, who is overseeing rebuilding efforts in southern Iraq. "Do I understand that it may not be the day after tomorrow? Sure I do. But there comes a time when we run out of Schlitz and these guys have got to be there to take up what slack exists."

ORHA officials say they couldn't prepare everything in advance for the post-war period because they had no idea how the war would play out or when it would end.

Iraqis, meantime, are becoming increasingly disgruntled. Some look back at the Saddam era with nostalgia.

"We want Saddam Hussein back," said one man on the highway south of Baghdad as he waited at a black market gas station set up along the road.

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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