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Trip to Najaf provides Bremer sights, sounds and smells of war

NAJAF, Iraq—If he happened to be peering out the window of his Black Hawk helicopter on Tuesday, L. Paul Bremer may have noticed that Baghdad looks best in the soft glow of the morning light, before the punishing sun rises high and the dust begins to swirl.

Bremer, the top U.S. official in Iraq and perhaps the most powerful American overseas since Gen. Douglas MacArthur, might have smelled the raw sewage befouling the shimmering Tigris River as his Black Hawk flew less than 100 feet above the surface.

Then again, perhaps he wasn't paying attention. Bremer, who's been running the U.S.-led occupation since June, has flown out of his headquarters in Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace dozens of times, and he's got a lot on his mind these days.

The 62-year-old former marathon runner, who lives behind sandbags and razor wire in the fortified headquarters known as the Green Zone, likes to get out among the people. But Iraq is full of well-armed insurgents who would like to see him dead.

So a trip for him involves helicopter gunships, machine gun trucks, snipers and a platoon of bodyguards. Three months before Bremer hands off sovereignty to an interim Iraqi government and goes home, it's a reminder that for all the progress, he'll be leaving behind a chaotic and dangerous country.

On Tuesday, his destination was Najaf, 55 miles to the south, a Shiite holy city. There he was to visit a military base to sit down with a handpicked group of local notables. Then it was off to a power plant, where he would celebrate a $14 million renovation project.

Three Black Hawk helicopters lifted off from the Green Zone carrying Bremer, his staff entourage, his bodyguards and reporters, whose bags had been inspected by bomb-sniffing dogs.

As the aircraft headed south, the landscape changed rapidly from Baghdad's grit to a lush expanse of date palms, and then to farmland made green by irrigation. The Black Hawks flew just 50 feet off the ground because flying low and fast makes them harder to hit with surface-to-air missiles.

Many people waved as the aircraft shot past. In the predominantly Shiite Muslim south, most remain grateful that the United States ousted their longtime oppressor, Saddam, a Sunni Muslim.

Bremer flew over goats, sheep, cows and a man paddling a canoe on the Euphrates River.

After about an hour, the aircraft landed at a Honduran military base. Najaf is part of the multinational zone, run by the Spanish, but filled with small contingents of troops from dozens of countries.

Bremer and his entourage climbed into white Chevrolet Suburbans and sped into the city, flanked by machine-gun-mounted Humvees. U.S. soldiers stopped traffic at intersections for the convoy.

Small civilian helicopters followed overhead, carrying snipers from Bremer's private security team.

The rest of that team—muscles rippling, weapons ready—jumped out and surrounded Bremer as he arrived at a base run by Salvadorans.

At the meeting, Bremer fielded gentle questions about security and politics, replying as one might expect from a polished former diplomat. "The path toward an Iraqi democracy lies well lighted before us," he said poetically.

After the meeting, Bremer had lunch with the governor of Najaf province and the local police chief. Then he stepped outside to shake the hands of six Salvadoran soldiers who were credited with saving several American civilian officials' lives some weeks ago when their convoy was ambushed.

Later, at the power plant, Bremer said the coalition had brought Iraq's electricity output up to 4,300 megawatts, exceeding prewar production. By June 1, he said, output should reach 6,000 megawatts, which should provide power to most residents for an average of 18 hours per day. Currently, in Najaf, the power is on for 12 hours, then off for another 12.

During his three hours in Najaf, Bremer didn't once mention the city's most famous resident, Grand Ayatollah Ali al Husseini al Sistani, the influential Shiite cleric whose proclamations have upended the ambassador's plans.

On Monday, Sistani demanded the United Nations reject a temporary constitution, which Bremer spent hours negotiating, on the grounds that it will promote sectarian divisions.

Asked about the letter, Bremer replied, "I don't have any comment on that."

Then he stepped into his Suburban and drove off for the landing zone and the helicopter back to Baghdad.


(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): Paul Bremer