BAGHDAD, Iraq—After a week of near-daily disasters, L. Paul Bremer, the chief administrator of the U.S.-led occupation, flew to a pair of southern Iraq cities Thursday to highlight the unglamorous but steady reconstruction progress that he said plodded on despite headline-making gun battles, bombs and riots.
"There are real signs of hope that I see as I travel around this country," Bremer said as he prepared to board a Chinook helicopter and return to Baghdad after stops in two cities near the Iranian border. "But what doesn't get reported on is the literally thousands of reconstruction projects that are going on in this country. Certainly not everybody's condition is as good as we want it to be, but I think we really are making progress."
Thursday marked the end of one of the most tragic seven-day periods since U.S.-led forces removed Saddam Hussein's regime in April. The preceding Thursday, 17 people were killed when a car bomb exploded outside the Jordanian embassy. On Friday, an 8-year-old girl was one of six people who were shot and killed when their cars approached American checkpoints. On Saturday, U.S. troops killed two Iraqi policemen in what officials called a "regrettable" incident.
Earlier this week, residents of Basra rioted over electricity shortages. On Wednesday, American soldiers engaged in a gun battle during a crowded demonstration in Baghdad's Sadr City, killing at least one person. Meanwhile, the drumbeat of guerrilla attacks continued, killing four U.S. troops and wounding 17 in the last week.
In addition, violent criminals continue to make the streets unsafe in many areas and most Iraqis have neither jobs, reliable electric power nor clean water.
Asked to put the litany of bad news in context, Bremer didn't address specifics. He said: "I don't deny we've had some problems, and I don't deny we've got a lot more work to do."
At a briefing Tuesday, Bremer had said: "Look, it's a regrettable thing anytime there is the loss of innocent life. There are, in combat operations, always going to be mistakes." He said he thought the number of innocent civilians killed by coalition forces was low, although he also said he didn't know what that number was.
He had acknowledged that Iraq was facing a new terrorist threat from foreign fighters who have entered the country since the war, and said he expected attacks to continue from the "bitter-enders," his term for members of Saddam's former Baath Party regime who are trying to maim and kill American troops. But he had rejected one questioner's characterization of a "country in chaos."
"Freedom matters," Bremer had said at the news conference. "It is important to remember this and look beyond the shoot-outs and the blackouts, and remind ourselves of the range of rights that Iraqis enjoy today because of the coalition's military victory."
Thursday, in addition to stressing Iraq's new political freedom, Bremer sought to emphasize the reconstruction achievements of the coalition, which has committed money to projects worth about $3 billion.
For example, Bremer said while meeting local officials at a hospital in Diwania, the coalition has helped rebuild looted hospitals, and has increased the amount of drug imports sevenfold compared with prewar levels.
Speaking with a group of sheiks and clerics who make up the provincial council in the city of Amara, near the Iranian border, Bremer said coalition forces had rebuilt at least 1,000 schools and would provide students with 1.3 million backpacks filled with supplies.
Bremer noted that the coalition had hired about 100,000 Iraqis in the south as part of a massive project to clean long-neglected irrigation ditches. He touched on plans to try to restore land populated by the marsh Arabs, which was one of the world's largest wetlands until Saddam systematically drained it.
Iraqis who are aware of these projects welcome them, of course, as they do their new liberties. But away from the cameras that followed his entourage Thursday, a number of people told the same story that can be heard every day on the streets of Baghdad.
"There is no security; there are big thieves. The street is not safe for women," said Hanadi El Ibrahim, a lab technician at the hospital in Diwania. "There is no electricity at home. No reading, no nothing."
The power shortage is a particular thorn for coalition officials. Even when they have finished repairing war damage to the power grid, the country still will produce 30 percent less electricity than it needs, and $2 billion will be required to build enough capacity to meet demand, they say. There are few easy fixes in postwar Iraq.
"Of course Iraqis still complain about security," Bremer said, wearing a blue suit, red tie, white pocket-scarf and tan Army-issue desert boots. "Of course they complain about electricity; what's the temperature today? It's above 125; it's hot. But we are working on those problems, and we're making progress on the essential services."
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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