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U.S. leader in Iraq announces ambitious timetable for rebuilding

WASHINGTON _The top U.S. administrator in Baghdad announced an accelerated timetable Wednesday to stabilize and rebuild Iraq as the White House took the offensive to rebut critics of its postwar planning.

L. Paul Bremer III, head of the Coalition Provisional Authority, laid out ambitious goals that include restoring electricity to prewar levels, training Iraqi soldiers and police to help with security and reviving Iraq's economy. The plan includes 60- and 120-day benchmarks for specific goals.

"We have a plan for the next 60, 120 days and beyond," Bremer said in a speech to the National Press Club.

Bremer's speech was part of a concerted effort by Bush and his aides to counter a growing public perception that the rebuilding of Iraq has faltered as U.S. troops come under daily attack.

In a poll released Wednesday, 57 percent of respondents said the rebuilding effort was not going well, up slightly from 53 percent six weeks ago. Eighty percent said the greatest challenges in Iraq are still ahead, but only 9 percent favored withdrawing U.S. troops. The survey was conducted by the University of Maryland's Program on International Policy Attitudes.

The White House has been buoyed by the U.S. military's killing Tuesday of Saddam's two sons, Odai and Qusai, which officials hope will undercut violent resistance from loyalists to the former regime.

Bush, flanked at the White House by Bremer, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, celebrated the death of Saddam's sons and offered an optimistic assessment of postwar Iraq.

"Now, more than ever, all Iraqis can know that the former regime is gone and will not be coming back," Bush said, calling the slain sons "two of the regime's chief henchmen."

"A few remaining holdouts are trying to prevent the advance of order and freedom," the president said. "They operate mainly in a few areas of the country. And wherever they operate, they are being hunted, and they will be defeated."

Separately, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, just back from a 4{-day visit to Iraq, said the reconstruction effort was going more swiftly than previous efforts, such as the one in Kosovo.

"There's been a lot of talk that there was no (postwar) plan," Wolfowitz said. "There was a plan, but as any military officer can tell you, no plan survives first contact with reality."

Knight Ridder reported earlier this month that Pentagon officials failed to prepare for the setbacks that have occurred in Iraq, operated on rosy assumptions and dismissed postwar planning from the State Department and other agencies.

Wolfowitz said the Pentagon planned intensively for a humanitarian crisis that did not occur. He said there were three surprises on the security front: few Iraqi soldiers came over to the U.S. side during the war; the Iraqi police force required "a massive overhaul"; and no one anticipated that remnants of the regime would launch guerrilla attacks on U.S. troops.

Bremer also contended that the effort in Iraq is going far better than commonly realized. He cited the reopening of universities, where students are taking final exams, and the convening last week of a 25-member Governing Council of Iraqis that is gradually to take control of government ministries and other functions.

"Iraqis are now more and more taking responsibility for their own affairs," he said.

But Bremer warned that attacks on U.S. forces are likely to continue even as he is taking steps to improve security, such as training a brigade of a new Iraqi army and raising eight battalions for an Iraqi civil defense corps.

"We will be subjected to attacks, and we will have casualties," he said. He gave no timetable for withdrawal of the more than 140,000 U.S. troops in Iraq.

An independent study team that went to Iraq reported last week that the next three months will be crucial. The report, sponsored by the Center for Strategic and International Studies, a conservative think tank in Washington, warned that the "window for cooperation may close rapidly" if Iraqis do not see economic and political progress.

Bremer said his immediate focus is on restoring essential services for Iraqis. That includes bringing electrical service to prewar levels, rehabilitating 1,000 schools and reviving Iraq's health-care system.


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099):

President Bush, L. Paul Bremer III