Wednesday, September 10, 2003

I WENT TO IRAQ in August, the day after a bomb had ripped through the United Nations compound in Baghdad, killing 23 people including the U.N. special envoy. I came home the day after another massive car bomb exploded at a mosque in Najaf, taking more than 95 lives including that of a leading cleric. Yet I returned more optimistic than when I went.

Understandably, these attacks have caused apprehension, verging on panic, among U.S.-based commentators and politicians. A chorus of critics is already attacking the Bush administration for losing Iraq. During my trip I, too, saw plenty of room for improvement, especially by the civilian-run Coalition Provisional Authority in Baghdad. For that matter, I was almost a casualty of a roadside bomb myself. Nevertheless, after 10 days traveling with soldiers and Marines in both the north and south, I am encouraged by the resourcefulness of our troops and struck by how different things look when seen firsthand. From afar, chaos seems to reign in Iraq; up close, distinct signs of progress emerge.

But take a few minutes to read the whole thing. It'll give you interesting glimpses of the soldiers, marines and the civilians trying to help this country get back on its feet. Sample:

There was pressure from some U.S. officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority to arrest Sadr because of widespread rumors that he was involved in the murder of a pro-American imam back in April. But in the absence of hard evidence, the Marines refused to move against him. In their view, arresting him would only have turned him into a martyr. Better to let his rival clerics steal away his support--which seems to be happening.

THIS IS ONLY ONE EXAMPLE of the rifts that divide the military from the CPA, led by Ambassador L. Paul Bremer. It was apparent during our visit that the CPA has done little to help the men and women in uniform; some joked that the agency's initials stand for "Can't Provide Anything." Even well-intentioned CPA initiatives have been badly bungled.

For instance, there was a plan to put 300,000 unemployed Iraqis to work clearing agricultural canals. A good idea, but the Iraqi managers failed to pay the workers for three weeks. In Diwaniyah, a major town in central Iraq, the unhappy ditch diggers rioted in protest and destroyed a government building. The Marines, who had not been involved in setting up this program, were called in to deal with the resulting chaos. They dispersed the rioters and paid the agricultural workers out of their own funds. Now they have set up a system to ensure that the payments are made. One can only hope that the coalition forces who are replacing the Marines will prove equally adept at covering for the CPA's missteps.

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