BAGHDAD, Iraq—Secretary of State Colin Powell asserted Sunday that Iraqis are accelerating their progress towards self-government and the eventual removal of U.S. troops, and described the situation in Baghdad as more hopeful than reported in the news media.
Powell, on his first-ever trip to the Iraqi capital, spent a day meeting with U.S. and Iraqi authorities to assess the countries political and economic reconstruction six months after President George W. Bush ordered U.S. troops to invade.
"I was deeply impressed with what I saw—Iraqi people hard at work rebuilding a nation, rebuilding a society," Powell said at a press conference with chief U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III.
Powell met with members of the Iraqi Governing Council, an interim 25-member ruling body, and pledged that the United States would return sovereignty to Iraq as quickly as possible. He offered no specific timetable.
The secretary, traveling under extra security precautions, spent most of his day within a tightly secured American compound covering several square miles of downtown Baghdad. Barricades, barbed wire and heavily armed U.S. soldiers protected the area.
Outside the compound, Baghdad has become one of the world's most dangerous cities, with an estimated 1,000 homicides per month.
The availability of electricity has improved nationwide, although in Baghdad it still falls short of pre-war levels.
And while the number of sabotage attacks on Iraq's infrastructure is decreasing, their sophistication may be increasing, said Andrew Bearpark, a top Bremer aide.
International officials estimate that it could take $30 billion in the years 2004 and 2005 to repair the country's dilapidated electric, water, and other systems.
A reporter asked Powell how he could accurately judge the situation here from such a protected vantage point. He replied: "I am not able to get everywhere I'd like to go in a relatively short visit." But, he said, "I think I've been around long enough" to assess what he is being told.
Powell, a former chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, met with Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground forces in Iraq.
The security situation in Iraq "remains challenging," the secretary acknowledged.
Powell said that he was told that "a major new threat are the terrorists who are trying to infiltrate into the country for the purpose of disrupting this experiment" in Middle East democracy. U.S. intelligence agencies estimate the number of foreign "jihadists," who have come to Iraq to fight, are in the hundreds or, at most, 1,000, he said.
One U.S. soldier was killed and three were wounded Sunday when their military vehicle was attacked in the tense western city of Fallujah, where U.S. troops last week accidentally killed nine Iraqi policemen in a friendly fire incident.
Powell's main purpose in coming to Baghdad was to showcase the progress of the Iraqi Governing Council in assuming limited self-government powers.
But some members of the council, including the current chairman, former exile leader Ahmed Chalabi, want to move much faster. They are joined by foreign powers such as France, which believe Bremer's coalition provisional authority should step aside and, with the United Nation's help, should schedule elections this spring.
But Powell argued strenuously for a slower approach.
"Everybody would like to accelerate this. Everybody would like this to go faster the worst thing that could happen is for us to push this too quickly" before the new government gains widespread legitimacy, he said.
Iraqi Interim Foreign Minister Hoshiyar Zebari, who lunched with Powell, said afterward that he hoped a sovereign Iraqi government could be in place my mid-2004.
Powell received a warm reception in Baghdad, as the popular former general invariably does whenever he travels abroad.
"We've waited for him for a long time to come," Zebari said.
As chairman of the Joint Chiefs, Powell played a key role in planning Saddam Hussein's defeat in the 1991 Persian Gulf War. He was among those who warned at the time against sending U.S. troops to seize Baghdad because it would make the United States responsible for the country's future.
The secretary of state, whose schedule is not being announced in advance as a security precaution, flew into Baghdad International Airport on an Air Force C-130 that made sharp turns and a steep decent to avoid potential hostile ground fire.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ken Dilanian contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.