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Baghdad on the Hudson

By Michael R. Gordon
New York Times

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BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Imagine that the blackout that struck the United States on Thursday was a daily phenomenon. And imagine that the New York City police force was only a third its authorized strength, that criminals walked the streets and that gun battles could be heard at night.

The power disruptions that Americans have endured in the Northeast the last couple of days provide a taste of the new and very unsettling experience that many Iraqis have endured for months now. And it is an enormous problem for the American-led coalition.

If ending the threat of weapons of mass destruction was the Bush administration's sole reason for intervening, it could proclaim its job done and turn over the administration of Iraq to the United Nations.

But the administration also wants to establish a pro-American government in Baghdad and reshape the political contours in the region. Winning the support of the Iraqis is thus not a secondary objective. It is a part of the core mission.

One official who has a sense of the urgency of that task is Andrew Bearpark, the chief of operations for the Coalition Provisional Authority, as the occupying power is known. He is a top aide to L. Paul Bremer III, the head of the authority and a British citizen who oversaw the reconstruction effort in Kosovo.

When I went to see him the other day, I was struck by his blunt appraisal. Starkly put, Mr. Bearpark believes that the coalition has an opportunity to garner popular support but is running out of time. He said the coalition has until the start of Ramadan, in mid-October, or about 60 days, to persuade Iraqis that it has their interests at heart and to show that it is making steady progress toward rebuilding the country.

"At that point, we will be able to say, `Yes, we have started to win the hearts and minds,' " Mr. Bearpark said. "Or you will have a populace that is tending toward the other extreme of saying: `These guys have failed. We were much better off under Saddam Hussein. We don't like these guys at all.' "

The saga that brought the United States, Britain and its other allies to this point is no secret. But it is useful to retrace it.

American officials prepared for civilian crises like famine and refugees. But they did not anticipate the enormous task of restoring the nation's electrical system and rebuilding its infrastructure.

Nor did they anticipate the scale of the looting, which did far more damage to the electrical and water-purification system than the allied airstrikes. (Allied bombing raids, on the other hand, did destroy much of Iraq's telecommunications system.)

A large part of the problem is that the Iraqis have an enormous regard for American economic might and military prowess. Under the Saddam Hussein regime, Iraqis did not have political freedom, but Baghdad's electrical system kept the city lit. So it is hard for many Iraqis to believe that the technologically advanced Americans and their allies are having such a difficult time restoring electrical power and other services.

Some have hatched conspiracy theories to explain the seeming riddle. Abdel Hadi al-Daraji, a prayer leader in Sadr City, the Shiite district in Baghdad, told the faithful that Iraq was suffering from an electrical drought because the United States was exporting Iraq's power to Israel.

Some secular Iraqis believe the United States does not want to repair the system because it wants to have an excuse to prolong its troop deployments here the exact opposite of what the Pentagon says it wants. One Iraqi told me that many of his friends had the sense that a lying, aloof dictator had been replaced by a new and equally remote overseer that made promises it could not keep.

Mr. Bearpark acknowledged the difficulties. "The people out there then had the perception that the coalition had failed, that one minute you are having a war and the next minute you have awful looting problems, awful law and order problems, awful security problems," Mr. Bearpark said. "Things are now starting to get better, but I think there is now, if you like, an ambivalence out there," he added. "Do they like the coalition? Don't they like the coalition? Are we good guys? Are we bad guys? And I do think that that can go in either direction."

Restoring the basic infrastructure to prewar levels in the next two months is an initial goal. There are some wrinkles, of course. Even if the production of electricity reaches the level it was at before the American-led invasion, Baghdad will still have a deficit. That is because with Mr. Hussein gone, some parts of the country are claiming a larger share of the electricity than they once had. Also, parts of the infrastructure like the sewage system are in such bad shape that it could take well over a year to fix them.

The next step is to move ahead with major contracts to overhaul the infrastructure using funds donated by foreign nations and, eventually, proceeds from Iraq's oil industry. At the same time, elections will be held to create a new Iraqi government with an internal Iraqi security force and an army.

This is a contest to secure the support of the public, and the next few months are crucial. It is difficult to put oneself in the place of an Iraqi, but it is possible to perform this thought experiment.

Switch New York and Baghdad. Imagine New York with a rationing system in which the electrical system was routinely turned off every three hours that it was on. Imagine that criminals some 70,000 were let loose by Mr. Hussein before the war roam the streets and that the police and the Americans had only limited success in preventing crimes. And imagine that streets were patrolled by a foreign army whose young soldiers could not speak your language and were not always familiar with your customs.

You might have grand hopes that the new authorities would fulfill their promises to rebuild your country, but how long would you be prepared to wait? The answer, Mr. Bearpark and many other experts believe, is not that long.

"We do need results and we need them fairly quickly to maintain and increase the faith of the Iraqi people," he said.

Michael R. Gordon is chief military correspondent for the New York Times.

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