BAGHDAD, Iraq - The departure of several thousand U.S. Army troops from Iraq has been delayed pending the outcome of a comprehensive high-level review of security in Baghdad and elsewhere in the country, senior U.S. military officials said yesterday.
L. Paul Bremer III, the new U.S. civil administrator for Iraq, began the security review last night by convening senior members of his reconstruction agency, military commanders and prominent Iraqi political figures. The gathering was the highest-level discussion of its sort since the end of major combat operations last month.
"We have some urgent work to do together in restoring law and order all over Iraq," Bremer told reporters after the two-hour meeting.
John Sawers, the senior British civilian official in Iraq, who also attended, described the security situation in parts of the capital as "bad."
"We recognize that, and we are taking action to address it," he added.
Earlier yesterday, Bremer signed an order banning senior members of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party from all public-sector employment.
The order also decreed that the U.S.-led coalition will evaluate former Baath Party members for criminal conduct and to determine whether they might pose a threat to the security of occupation forces. Officials said security concerns prompted Bremer to issue the order.
An official for the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), the agency administering Iraq, admitted that the ban issued by Bremer could complicate efforts to restore efficient government institutions but said that evidence that organized Baathist groups were actively sabotaging efforts to restore social order had made the decree urgent.
"This is the cause for some - not all - of the law-and-order problem," said the official, who asked not to be named.
Collectively, the measures conveyed a new sense of urgency on the part of U.S. authorities to rein in the lawlessness that has crippled efforts to improve conditions for residents of the capital since the war essentially ended a month ago.
The lack of law and order in the Iraqi capital has shaken many Iraqis' belief that the fall of Hussein and the arrival of U.S. forces would bring a better life. The pervasive insecurity has disrupted the delivery of humanitarian aid, slowed the restoration of essential services and left many families in the capital struggling to regain a semblance of normality.
While delaying the departure of some U.S. soldiers mighty help boost security, the decision generated dismay within the ranks of many Army units that have been deployed in Iraq for months.
Senior Army officials expressed frustration at the slow pace of civilian reconstruction efforts. While dozens of Army civil affairs teams are working daily in the capital to pay teachers and other civil servants and perform tasks such as installing generators in orphanages, they see little progress on the multibillion-dollar reconstruction program.
"It's extremely frustrating for us," said one senior military officer. "We've lost some time here."
U.S. civilian officials estimated that yesterday's ban on public employment for senior Baathists would likely affect 5 percent of the party's 600,000 to 700,000 members but said the order would have a disproportionate impact at the highest government levels.
Of the 10 categories of Baath Party members, those in the top four will be hit by the ban.
Tyler Marshall and Mark Fineman write for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.