The New Man in Baghdad


BAGHDAD—The last time the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra was supposed to perform for the country’s leader, they got stuck with a deputy instead, at the time and place of his choosing. The orchestra waited four hours till Uday Saddam Hussein showed up with a few of his girlfriends at a family club in a chichi part of town. The ensemble had made it halfway through its second piece, a bouncy selection from Johann Strauss’s Die Fledermaus, when the heir apparent stood, thanked them for their time, and stopped the concert.

Today, a reconfigured orchestra (like many public organizations in Iraq, they are in the throes of regime-related purges) also waits for the man who now leads the country, in the suffocating heat of Ribat Hall, a glass and concrete monument to late-’70s Iraqi architecture. Like large swaths of Baghdad, almost 10 weeks after the end of the war, the building has no electricity. A boombox-sized generator outside the front door powers a handful of rotating electric fans. The orchestra director and its conductor, in between swipes at dripping brows, look anxiously to the street, in the hopes that L. Paul Bremer will arrive soon.

Just over a month into his tenure as America’s man in Baghdad, Bremer remains a figure referred to alternately here with fascination or derision, and often, both. He is the most powerful man in Iraq, endowed with huge responsibilities by both the U.S. and the United Nations. His success here seems to hinge on his ability to reverse the widely held perception that the Americans were caught totally unawares by the post-war chaos.

The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), as Bremer’s office is now called, seems to be making headway in the struggle to bring life in Iraq back to normal. The CPA is paying government workers, chlorinating water, and in places, picking up the trash. But they can’t get the guns off the street, and the electricity won’t stay on. These are major failures which make most of their accomplishments seem small.

But apart from the daily scorecard by which life here is judged—electricity, gas, relative security, and jobs—there is a feeling that the biggest problems have been put off. Or worse still, that these issues, especially those deciding the future economic and political life of the nation, are being mulled over by Bremer’s group deep in the Republican Palace, away from the oversight Iraqis think they deserve.

Bremer celebrated his first month in Iraq with a well-attended press conference in Baghdad’s massive convention center. His shadow, created by a battery of television lights, loomed on the white wall behind him as he explained how he would tackle the nation’s economy first, which, in his thinking, had been “damaged” by decades of centralized government. “The private sector will be the key,” he said, followed by, “Creating jobs for Iraqis remains my top priority.” It was a process, he said, giving no details, that would evolve over the next month or so, and millions would be spent on projects like the purchase of the wheat and barley harvest, and completing the Baghdad to Basra highway. A majority of Iraqis are thought to be unemployed; so, on the surface, a jobs program would seem to be welcome news. However, the public sector has been Iraq’s biggest employer, making Bremer’s private sector plan a revolution of sorts that some think will leave many without work.

But the operations taking place under the CPA remain shrouded in secrecy. At least 10 requests for interviews went unanswered. Whether this is just a continued symptom of the disorganization that followed the end of the war, or whether it’s intentional, is still unclear. For the time being, insights are gleaned only from CPA press appearances and conversations with the Iraqis that Bremer consults.

Adnan Pachachi, a former Iraqi foreign minister considered a State Department favorite for a prominent role in a new government, is also unaware precisely what kind of economic advice the Americans are receiving, and though he has met with the Americans, couldn’t recall the names of the economists advising them. Perhaps more troubling from a man many considered an insider, Pachachi also seemed not to know where the money now being used in Iraq is coming from.

“I believe what has been spent so far is American money,” he said in an interview at his home in Baghdad’s wealthy Al-Mansour neighborhood. This may be the case but roughly $100 million in initiatives announced by Bremer this week will come from seized Iraqi funds and money left over in the central bank. The fact that today the Americans seem to be spending wisely, repairing destroyed ministries, for instance, doesn’t mean that Iraqis won’t disagree with how it’s spent later.

But there is really no way for the Iraqis to disagree, outside of street demonstrations, or a few words whispered to a CPA official. There is no government here, nothing more than a self-appointed “leadership council” that includes seven political parties. Bremer is to appoint a larger advisory council, but this idea is already running aground because of his unilateral power to name the members. The Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution has already threatened not to join. And last week, Sherif Ali bin Hussein, a relative of Iraq’s last royal family, arrived to call a national referendum on a constitutional monarchy. If this takes place, it would delay a constitutional conference set for late July that Bremer sees as the lead-in to formation of a government Iraqis need now.

Still, Iraqis try to fathom the American plans. Hussain Kubba runs a Baghdad brokerage, one of about 50 firms that traded shares in the 120 companies listed on the Iraqi stock exchange, which still remains closed. His five employees are currently “on vacation.”

“I think the Americans are getting the wrong advice,” says Kubba, who is infuriated that there has been no attempt to reopen the exchange, which he called the only kind of democracy Iraqis enjoyed.

“These investors trade actively,” says Kubba, who holds a Ph.D. in economics. “People are angry and now they have simply started trading outside the market,” he says, adding that the market could be opened in a week, if the Americans had the will to do it. For the CPA, which is concerned with a free market, opening the exchange would seem a logical choice.

“Security is deteriorating. The power supply is null. The investment mood is on the shrink,” says Kubba, who adds there is a joke making the rounds in Baghdad. “People are saying that maybe the Americans should contract Saddam Hussein to come put the town back together.”

The Americans finally arrive at the concert, a half-hour late, and they too have sent a deputy. The orchestra members seem thrilled that someone showed up, even if it is Pierre Cordone, the adviser to the Ministry of Culture, and not Bremer. The symphony’s director and conductor both make speeches, referring to Cordone and an army colonel with him as “Your Excellency.” And the director has a request. “We need some encouragement,” he says. “We need some understanding.” Especially, he says, when it comes to the group’s salaries, now hovering around $20 a month. Then the Iraqi Symphony Orchestra puts on a hell of a rehearsal, which includes the march from Carmen, and some Mozart.

The visitors are thrilled with the performance and there are smiles and handshakes all around. Cordone tells the group that the request for more pay will be considered, and he will get back to them. That will probably not be before he runs it by Bremer somewhere in the gold-trimmed rooms of the Republican Palace, where such decisions are made.