Beside the Tigris River, behind sandbags and barbed wire, inside a sprawling marble ode to Saddam Hussein, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer smiles at a group of visitors and says, "Welcome to Free Iraq."
When the administrator of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) is not shuttling back to Washington for emergency strategy sessions-as he did last week just before U.S. forces blasted a building used by anti-Western insurgents inside Iraq-he does business from a monstrosity that American soldiers call the "palace of the four heads." Each "head" is a one-story-tall bust of a smiling Saddam Hussein, and from a conference room here several U.S. journalists spoke to Mr. Bremer about the successes of coalition occupation that are driving terrorists to ever more desperate attacks.
With images of bombed-out military compounds and smoldering convoys, just what is the state of "Free Iraq"?
A week on the ground in Iraq, traveling with U.S. forces to Baghdad, Tikrit, Kirkuk, Mosul, and Al Hillah, reveals that the U.S. military and the American media offer two contradictory visions of contemporary Iraq.
For the next hour, Mr. Bremer will detail the view from inside the walled-in compound from which America and its allies run a liberated Iraq. It is a hopeful vision based on solid statistics: schools and hospitals reopened, electricity generation rates above pre-war levels, falling crime rates, increased intelligence leads on Saddam loyalists and weapons of mass destruction. Mr. Bremer regularly contrasts the administration with the reconstruction of postÐWorld War II Germany. In Iraq, a new currency was introduced in less than three months, he says, while in Germany it took three years. Local governments were installed in two months in Iraq, he adds, compared to eight months in Germany in 1945.
Less than a mile up the road, outside of the American compound, international reporters are holed up in the Palestine Hotel. Most of the articles filed from the press bunker follow the lines of David Rieff's recent New York Times magazine article headlined: "Who botched the occupation?" The only statistic the press focuses on is the slowly growing body count. And reporters have a different historical parallel in mind. One newspaper editor, flying over southern Iraq in a Blackhawk, pointed out the helicopter's shadow moving over tiny irrigation canals, which, from above, look loosely like rice paddies. All he said was "Vietnam."
The reality on the ground is more complex than both the military and the media assert; Iraq is neither Germany in 1945 nor Vietnam in 1968. The Iraqis seem to compare the American occupation with the regime of Saddam Hussein and, on balance, prefer the Americans.
A visit with Muslim cleric Sayyid Farkad Quizwini, who runs a university in Al Hillah in southern Iraq, shows how differently Iraqis see their situation. Mr. Quizwini saw the massacre of his fellow Shia Muslims following the 1991 uprising against Saddam. Less than four miles from his small, sandstone campus lies a field with bits of clothing sticking up through the dirt. U.S. military officials estimate that 20,000 bodies lie there.
Mr. Quizwini mentions these mass graves repeatedly. He wonders why American journalists question the morality of the war and the existence of Saddam's ties to terrorism and weapons of mass destruction. Speaking through a student translator, the cleric asks: "What evidence do they need besides the mass graves all over Iraq?"
While Mr. Quizwini cites a number of problems in Iraq, including poverty and poor education, he thinks the media are missing the real story of Iraq's recovery: "The things you see and hear on American television are exaggerations and lies. In Iraq there are people who are your brothers in humanity and thank you for their liberation."
He worries that negative television coverage will drive American troops out of his country. The black-turbaned, black-bearded cleric hopes that American soldiers will stay at least four to six years in order to lay solid foundations for democracy and to prevent the emergence of another dictator. Mr. Quizwini added: "We ask God for President Bush's reelection because he helped make the Iraqi people free from Saddam."
Mr. Quizwini speaks proudly of his fellow Shia Muslims in neighboring Iran: "They are now envious of us, of our democracy."
Like other Iraqis interviewed, Mr. Quizwini looked at his Muslim neighbors with intense skepticism. He faulted Syria and Iran for allowing terrorists to slip across its borders into Iraq. He scoffed at following the guidance of the Arab League. "Twenty-one dictatorships. How can they contribute to a free Iraq?"
Back in Baghdad, the civilian leaders are reluctant to talk about the security situation. More than 90 percent of attacks occur within the area that military planners call the "Sunni Triangle," which runs west from Baghdad to Fallujah, north to Tikrit, and back to Baghdad. Outside of that area, attacks on allied forces are rare.
Administrator Paul Bremer says that the coalition is at war with three different sets of enemies: former regime loyalists (known as "FRLs" in military jargon), terrorists (mostly al-Qaeda and Ansar al-Islam), and mercenaries hired from the ranks of more than 75,000 violent criminals released from prison by Saddam on the eve of liberation. "I don't believe our intel is very good in terms of who these people are," Mr. Bremer said.
U.S. Army commanders, who are directly responsible for security, seem more optimistic. Army generals in Baghdad and Tikrit, the most hostile zones in Iraq, say that intelligence is improving and that individual attacks are becoming less deadly.
Gen. Martin Dempsey, commander of the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division, says that intelligence is actually increasing. He told WORLD 80 percent of raids are conducted on the basis of solid information and target specific, named individuals. His division, operating in central and western Baghdad, uncovers an average of 300 weapons caches per month-mostly on the basis of tips supplied by Iraqis.
This uptick in intelligence is a recent development. "Only in the past month to six weeks did we get decent intelligence," Gen. Dempsey said.
The enemy does not seem to be numerous or well-organized. Gen. Dempsey estimates that eight cells, composed of no more than 25 members each, operate in Baghdad. All told, former regime loyalists waging war amount to less than 2,500. Foreign fighters, the preferred military euphemism for terrorists, probably account for another 1,000. Sniper attacks and direct combat with U.S. troops have all but vanished. Gen. Dempsey said dryly: "They've learned it is too risky to attack us directly." Most firefights were over in minutes and the deaths were disproportionately on the Iraqi side.
This has led to two important shifts in enemy strategy, the general said. The enemy is increasingly using remote-detonated roadside bombs (known as "improvised explosive devices" or IEDs in the lingo) and long-distance rocket attacks. More than half of these roadside bombs are discovered before they can be detonated. And the rocket and mortar attacks rarely strike their targets. Col. Steve Boltz, an intelligence officer attached to the Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad, says this trend toward "hit-and-run" attacks indicates increasing desperation on the part of Saddam loyalists. A new form of attack, Col. Boltz said, fits this pattern: mortars launched from the beds of moving pick-up trucks.
According to U.S. Army generals in Baghdad and Tikrit, upwards of 85 percent of all attacks on Americans are paid for (as are all anti-American demonstrations). And the price for such terror strikes is increasing. Brig. Gen. Michael Barbero, commander of the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, says that his intelligence indicates that the cost of sponsoring an attack on his troops rose from $150 in September to more than $800 in November. Gen. Dempsey says the cost of hiring attackers in Baghdad has grown from $25 in September to $500 today. Bear in mind, an army public-affairs officer added, most Iraqis are happy to earn $5 a day for peaceful work.
"The enemy has no popular support," said Col. Boltz, the intelligence officer, adding that the enemy has to buy it with cash.
That cash is running out. The U.S. Army "Taskforce Iron Horse" has broken up two operations to counterfeit U.S. currency and seized tens of millions of dollars hidden in homes and offices.
As more Iraqi police take to the streets, Col. Boltz believes that both crime and attacks will decrease. Violent crime in Baghdad has plummeted by 40 percent since September, when Iraqi police returned to the streets in force.
Still, Mr. Bremer and his colleagues seem focused on the second half of the phrase "nation-building." Mr. Bremer himself talks passionately about infrastructure projects. The Coalition Provisional Authority has completed more than 13,000 reconstruction projects, ranging from repairing a school to resurrecting sprawling oil plants. All schools and virtually all hospitals and clinics have been reopened, many with new equipment. The CPA points to 2,000 repairs on 143 water networks. More Iraqis have access to potable water than before the war.
"Essential services are coming back," Mr. Bremer said. Many towns and cities have 24-hour electricity for the first time ever. Mr. Bremer beams when he announces that Iraq now produces more than 4,400 megawatts of electricity, the peak of Saddam's electricity. "The problem," he added, "is that pre-war levels are unacceptable to the long-term stability of Iraq." He hopes to increase electrical generation to 6,000 megawatts by next summer.
Wearing a blue-on-red tie from the free-market Heritage Foundation, Mr. Bremer sees no irony as he sketches out a New DealÐstyle plan of economic recovery in Iraq. The CPA now buys most of the barley and wheat crop produced in Iraq and will continue to do so for the foreseeable future, he said. In addition, he talks glowingly about a government-sponsored job-creation scheme. American companies with contracts with the U.S. Defense Department are being pressured to hire more Iraqi subcontractors. Of Bechtel's 140 subcontractors in and around Baghdad, Mr. Bremer notes, 104 are Iraqis.
It wasn't the war that destroyed Iraq's infrastructure, Mr. Bremer points out, but Saddam Hussein's "proto-communist, Stalinist system."
Indeed, the Baath Party bureaucracy ran every aspect of economic life. Mr. Bremer cites the case of a fallen electrical cable north of Baghdad. Fixing it was the responsibility of the regional power distribution authority, but to do the job workers needed a "bucket truck"-a vehicle with a long metal arm that carries a worker 30 feet up-and their truck was broken. The regional power generation authority, a competing bureaucracy, had a working bucket truck across the street.
But the distribution authority instead sent a memo to its head office in Baghdad. Replacing a bureaucratic mentality with a can-do attitude will take time, Mr. Bremer says.
What about empowering the private sector? Unlike his infrastructure projects, Mr. Bremer's plans to bring the free market to Iraq sound vague. Business taxes will be capped at 15 percent, and tariffs on most goods will not exceed 5 percent.
In January, Mr. Bremer says he will invite up to six foreign banks to set up operations in Iraq: "The state-owned banks don't know how to make loans anyway." Private-sector investment and development will stall until the specter of more attacks-and of Saddam Hussein himself-is removed from the scene.
But does the military have up-to-the-minute intelligence that Saddam is in Iraq? The Coalition Provisional Authority's military intelligence officer, Col. Boltz, pauses before saying only, "Yes." He insists that U.S. forces are getting closer to Saddam and his regime's dwindling fighting remnant. "Our success is going to breed their failure," he said.
-Mr. Miniter is author of Losing bin Laden: How Bill Clinton's Failures Unleashed Global Terror