U.S. overseer voices hopes for new Iraq

Iraqis want democracy with political, religious freedom, Bremer says


BAGHDAD, Iraq - The U.S. administrator for Iraq said yesterday that the country's transition to independence could be marred by increased violence, but he expressed confidence that Iraqis could build a democracy that values religious and political freedom.

L. Paul Bremer III, the former diplomat and counterterrorism official who has governed Iraq since May, expressed high hopes for Iraq's political future after 35 years of dictatorship and one-party rule, saying that he believes Iraqis want and understand democracy.

"It is ambitious, and it is possible," he said in an interview in one of Saddam Hussein's vast palace compounds, where the Coalition Provisional Authority has its headquarters in a building dating from the Iraqi monarchy in the first half of the last century.

"We're not going to have a Jeffersonian democracy here," he added. "The process will be bumpy. We'll have bad days and good days."

Under an agreement with the Bush administration last month, Iraq's political leaders are supposed to create a new legislative assembly by next spring and elect a provisional government by July 1. An elected body to write a constitution would then follow, with national elections possible by 2006.

Before that, however, Iraq's transitional leadership must also tackle one of the more complicated questions about its future relationship with the United States, the country that many Iraqis applaud for ending Hussein's rule but also criticize for its handling of the occupation.

By March 15, the two sides are supposed to draw up a status of forces agreement on the future relationship between an independent Iraq and the U.S. military.

A rise in attacks in the coming months would necessarily bring a sharper U.S. military response, Bremer added, and should be accompanied by a comparable increase in U.S. investment in improving the daily lives of Iraqi civilians. He said he planned to pour millions of dollars into local reconstruction projects over the next six months.

"As we respond to attacks - and we do have to respond to attacks to show that we mean to carry out our security obligations here - we have to be careful that we don't overdo that," he said. "We balance that by putting an enormous amount of money into reconstruction efforts."

Since the fall of Hussein's government in April, coalition military commanders have said they spent more than $100 million on projects in the provinces under their control. The source of the money was the seized assets of the old government.

Bremer said he wanted to spend more than double that.

Over the coming months, Bremer and his staff of 3,000 also have plans to engage Iraqis in a national debate over the shape of their nation.

"We want televised debates, town hall meetings, focus group meetings, meetings all across the country for people to sit down and talk about what kind of Iraq they want, what democracy means, what does separation of powers mean," Bremer said.

"It's never happened here, and it needs to happen rather quickly."

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