Mission imperial: The Occupation of Iraq

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Mission imperial: The Occupation of Iraq

Post by Guysanto » Wed Feb 21, 2007 5:48 pm


While Iraqis struggled in the chaos of Baghdad after the invasion, the Americans sent to rebuild the nation led a cocooned existence in the centre of the capital - complete with booze, hot dogs and luxury villas. In the first of three extracts from his new book, Rajiv Chandrasekaran exposes life in the Green Zone.

Mission imperial

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Monday February 19, 2007

Unlike almost anywhere else in Baghdad, you could dine at the cafeteria in the Republican Palace in the heart of the Green Zone for six months and never eat hummus, flatbread, or a lamb kebab. The palace was the headquarters of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), the American occupation administration in Iraq, and the food was always American, often with a Southern flavour. A buffet featured grits, cornbread and a bottomless barrel of pork: sausage for breakfast, hot dogs for lunch, pork chops for dinner. The cafeteria was all about meeting American needs for high-calorie, high-fat comfort food.

None of the succulent tomatoes or crisp cucumbers grown in Iraq made it into the salad bar. US government regulations dictated that everything, even the water in which hot dogs were boiled, be shipped in from approved suppliers in other nations. Milk and bread were trucked in from Kuwait, as were tinned peas and carrots. The breakfast cereal was flown in from the US.

When the Americans arrived, the engineers assigned to transform Saddam's palace into the seat of the American occupation chose a marble-floored conference room the size of a gymnasium to serve as the mess hall. Halliburton, the defence contractor hired to run the palace, brought in dozens of tables, hundreds of stacking chairs and a score of glass-covered buffets. Seven days a week, the Americans ate under Saddam's crystal chandeliers.

A mural of the World Trade Centre adorned one of the entrances. The twin towers were framed within the outstretched wings of a bald eagle. Each branch of the US military - the army, air force, marines and navy - had its seal on a different corner of the mural. In the middle were the logos of the New York City police and fire departments, and on top of the towers were the words, "Thank God for the coalition forces & freedom fighters at home and abroad."

At another of the three entrances was a bulletin board with posted notices, including those that read:

- Bible study: Wednesdays at 7pm.

- Go running with the hash house harriers!

- Feeling stressed? Come visit us at the combat stress clinic.

- For sale: like-new hunting knife.

- Lost camera. Reward offered.

The seating was as tribal as that at a high-school cafeteria. The Iraqi support staffers kept to themselves. They loaded their lunch trays with enough calories for three meals. Soldiers, private contractors and mercenaries also segregated themselves. So did the representatives of the "coalition of the willing" - the Brits, the Aussies, the Poles, the Spaniards, and the Italians. The American civilians who worked for the occupation government had their own cliques: the big-shot political appointees, the twentysomethings fresh out of college, the old hands who had arrived in Baghdad in the first weeks of occupation. In conversation at their tables, they observed an unspoken protocol. It was always appropriate to praise "the mission" - the Bush administration's campaign to transform Iraq into a peaceful, modern, secular democracy where everyone, regardless of sect or ethnicity, would get along. Tirades about how Saddam had ruined the country and descriptions of how you were going to resuscitate it were also fine. But unless you knew someone really, really well, you didn't question American policy over a meal.

If you had a complaint about the cafeteria, Michael Cole was the man to see. He was Halliburton's "customer-service liaison", and he could explain why the salad bar didn't have Iraqi produce or why pork kept appearing on the menu. Cole was a rail-thin 22-year-old whose forehead was dotted with pimples. He had been out of college for less than a year and was working as a junior aide to a Republican congressman from Virginia when a Halliburton vice-president overheard him talking to friends in an Arlington bar about his dealings with irate constituents. She was so impressed that she introduced herself. If she needed someone to work as a valet in Baghdad, he joked, he'd be happy to volunteer. Three weeks later, Halliburton offered him a job. Then they asked for his CV.

Cole's mission was to keep the air in the bubble, to ensure that the Americans who had left home to work for the occupation administration felt comfortable. Food was part of it. But so were movies, mattresses and laundry service. If he was asked for something, Cole tried to get it, whether he thought it important or not.

From April 2003 until June 2004, the CPA ran Iraq's government - it enacted laws, printed currency, collected taxes, deployed police and spent oil revenue. At its height, the CPA had more than 1,500 employees in Baghdad, most of them American. It was headed by America's viceroy in Iraq, Lewis Paul Bremer III, who always wore a blue suit and tan combat boots, even on those summer days when Iraqis drooped in the heat.

He was surrounded by burly, sub-machine gun-toting bodyguards everywhere he went, even to the bathroom in the palace. The palace was Saddam's Versailles on the Tigris. Constructed of sandstone and marble, it had wide hallways, soaring columns and spiral staircases. Massive bronze busts of Saddam in an Arab warrior's headdress looked down from the four corners of the roof. The cafeteria was on the south side, next to a chapel with a billboard-size mural of a Scud missile arcing into the sky.

Whatever could be outsourced, was. The job of setting up town and city councils was performed by a North Carolina firm for $236m [£121m]. The job of guarding the viceroy was assigned to private guards, each of whom made more than $1,000 [£513] a day. For running the palace - cooking the food, changing the lightbulbs, doing the laundry, watering the plants - Halliburton had been handed hundreds of millions of dollars.

The Green Zone was Baghdad's Little America. Everyone who worked in the palace lived there, either in white metal trailers or in the towering al-Rasheed hotel. Hundreds of private contractors working for firms including Bechtel, General Electric and Halliburton set up trailer parks there, as did legions of private security guards hired to protect the contractors. The only Iraqis allowed inside the Green Zone were those who worked for the Americans or those who could prove that they had resided there before the war. Saddam had surrounded the area with a tall brick wall. There were only three points of entry. All the military had to do was park tanks at the gates.

Americans drove around in new GMC Suburbans, dutifully obeying the 35mph speed limit signs posted by the CPA on the flat, wide streets. When they cruised around, they kept the air-conditioning on high and the radio tuned to 107.7 FM - Freedom Radio, an American-run station that played classic rock and rah-rah messages. Every two weeks, the vehicles were cleaned at a Halliburton car wash.

Shuttle buses looped around the Green Zone at 20-minute intervals, stopping at wooden shelters to transport those who didn't have cars and didn't want to walk. There was daily mail delivery. Generators ensured that the lights were always on. If you didn't like what was being served in the cafeteria - or you were feeling peckish between meals - you could get a takeaway from one of the Green Zone's Chinese restaurants. Halliburton's dry-cleaning service would get the dust and sweat stains out of your khakis in three days. A sign warned patrons to remove ammunition from pockets before submitting clothes.

Iraqi laws and customs didn't apply inside the Green Zone. Women jogged on the pavement in shorts and T-shirts. A liquor store sold imported beer, wine and spirits. One of the Chinese restaurants offered massages as well as noodles. The young boys selling DVDs near the palace parking lot had a secret stash. "Mister, you want porno?" they whispered to me.

Most of the CPA's staff had never worked outside the United States. More than half, according to one estimate, had got their first passport in order to travel to Iraq. If they were going to survive in Baghdad, they needed the same sort of bubble that American oil companies had built for their workers in Saudi Arabia, Nigeria and Indonesia.

"It feels like a little America," Mark Schroeder said as we sat by the pool on a scorching afternoon, sipping water bottled in the United Arab Emirates. Schroeder, who was 24 at the time, had been working for a Republican congressman in Washington when he heard that the CPA needed more staff. He sent his résumé to the Pentagon. A few months later, he was in the Republican Palace.

He was an essential-services analyst. He compiled a weekly report for Bremer with bar graphs and charts that showed the CPA's progress in key sectors. Schroeder lived in a trailer with three roommates and ate all his meals in the mess hall. On Thursdays, he'd hitch a ride with a friend to the al-Rasheed's disco or another bar. In the two and a half months since he had arrived in Baghdad, he had left the Green Zone only once - and that was to travel to Camp Victory, the US headquarters near the airport.

When he needed to buy something, he went to the PX, the military-run convenience store next to the palace. There he could pick up Fritos, Cheetos, Dr Pepper, protein powder, Operation Iraqi Freedom T-shirts and pop CDs. If the PX didn't have what he wanted, he'd go to the Green Zone Bazaar, a small pedestrian mall with 70 shops operated by Iraqis who lived in the Green Zone. The bazaar had been built so that Americans wouldn't have to leave the Green Zone to purchase trinkets and sundries. Several shops sold mobile phones and bootlegged DVDs. Others hawked only-in-Iraq items: old army uniforms, banknotes with Saddam's face, Iraqi flags with the words "God is great" in Saddam's handwriting. My favourite was the JJ Store for Arab Photos, the Iraqi version of a wild-west photo booth at Disneyland: you could get a picture of yourself in Arab robes and a headdress.

The Green Zone also provided its own good time. The CPA had a "morale officer" who organised salsa dancing lessons, yoga classes and movie screenings in the palace theatre. There was a gym with the same treadmills and exercise machines you would find in any high-end health club in America.

Even in the first months after the fall of Saddam's government, Schroeder was incredulous when I told him that I lived in what he and others called the Red Zone, that I drove around without a security detail, that I ate at local restaurants, that I visited Iraqis in their homes. "What's it like out there?" he asked.

I described the pleasure of walking through al-Shorja market, and of having tea in cafes in the old quarter. I spoke about discussions of Iraqi culture and history that occurred when I went to the homes of my Iraqi friends for lunch. The more I talked, the more I felt like an extraterrestrial describing life on another planet.

From inside the Green Zone, the real Baghdad - the checkpoints, the bombed-out buildings, the paralysing traffic jams - could have been a world away. The horns, the gunshots, the muezzin's call to prayer, never drifted over the walls. The fear on the faces of US troops was rarely seen by the denizens of the palace. The acrid smoke of a detonated car bomb didn't fill the air. The sub-Saharan privation and wild-west lawlessness that gripped one of the world's most ancient cities swirled around the walls, but on the inside, the calm sterility of a US subdivision prevailed.

One morning, as a throng of Shia pilgrims jostled their way inside the Imam Kadhim shrine in northern Baghdad, a suicide bomber detonated his explosives belt. A second bomber waited round the corner and set off his belt when survivors ran away from the first blast. Then a third bomber blew himself up. And a fourth. The courtyard of the shrine filled with smoke and the screams of the dying. Blood pooled on the concrete floor. Dazed young men staggered about seeking help. Other survivors stacked the maimed on to wooden carts and pushed them toward wailing ambulances.

When I arrived at the scene an hour later, I saw corpses covered with white sheets. Arms and fingers had been blown onto third-story balconies. Piles of shoes belonging to the dead dotted the floor. Later, I saw dozens of bodies piled outside the morgue, covered with blue sheets, rotting under the sun.

That evening, I met a group of CPA staffers for dinner in the palace. Nobody mentioned the bombings. The shrine was just a few miles north of the Green Zone, no more than a 10-minute drive away. Had they heard about what had happened? Did they know dozens had died? "Yeah, I saw something about it on the office television," said the man to my right. "But I didn't watch the full report. I was too busy working on my democracy project"

Party on the tigris: sports bars, disco balls and sexual tension

General Order 1 prohibited military personnel from consuming alcohol in Iraq, but it did not apply to CPA staffers.

Drinking quickly became the most popular after-work activity. The Green Zone had no fewer than seven watering holes: the Halliburton-run sports bar in the basement of the al-Rasheed hotel, which had a big-screen television along with its Foosball table; the CIA's rattan-furnished bar - by invitation only - which had a mirrored disco ball and a games room; the pub in the British housing complex where the beer was served warm and graffiti mocked the Americans; the rooftop bar for General Electric contractors; a trailer tavern operated by Bechtel, the engineering firm; the Green Zone cafe, where you could smoke a water pipe and listen to a live Arab drummer as you drank; and the al-Rasheed's disco, which was the place to be seen on Thursday nights. A sign at the door requested patrons not to bring firearms inside. Scores of CPA staffers, including women who had had the foresight to pack hot pants and four-inch heels, danced on an illuminated Ba'ath party star embedded in the floor.

The atmosphere was thick with sexual tension. At the bar, there were usually 10 men to every woman. With tours of duty that sometimes stretched to six months without a home leave, some with wedding rings began to refer to themselves as "operationally single."

· This is an edited extract from Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, published next month by Bloomsbury. To order the book for £11.99 (rrp £12.99) with free uk p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.

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The Project: The Occupation of Iraq

Post by Guysanto » Wed Feb 21, 2007 5:53 pm


President Bush wanted the 'right' people in charge of the reconstruction of Iraq. Unfortunately for the country, that meant loyalty to the president rather than expertise - including a 24-year-old estate agent put in charge of the stock exchange, writes Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the second exclusive extract from his new book.

The project

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Tuesday February 20, 2007

The opportunity to participate in the US-led effort to reconstruct Iraq as part of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which ran Iraq's government from April 2004 until June 2004, attracted all manner of Americans: restless professionals, Arabic-speaking academics, development specialists and war-zone adventurers. But before they could go to Baghdad, they had to get past Jim O'Beirne's office in the Pentagon. To pass muster with O'Beirne, a political appointee who screens prospective political appointees for defence department posts, applicants didn't need to be experts in the Middle East or in post-conflict reconstruction. What seemed most important was loyalty to the Bush administration.

The selection often followed a call from a well-connected Republican on behalf of a friend or trusted colleague. Some people were personally recruited by the president.

O'Beirne's staff asked questions in job interviews that could have got an employer in the private sector hauled into court. (The Pentagon was exempted from most employment regulations because it hired people - using an obscure provision in federal law - as temporary political appointees.) Did you vote for George Bush in 2000? Do you support the way the president is fighting the war on terror? Two CPA staffers said that they were asked if they supported Roe v Wade (the ruling that effectively legalised abortion in the US). One former CPA employee, who had an office near the White House liaison staff, wrote an email to a friend describing the recruitment process: "I watched resumés of immensely talented individuals who had sought out CPA to help the country thrown in the trash because their adherence to 'the president's vision for Iraq' [a frequently heard phrase at CPA] was 'uncertain'."

Another CPA staffer told me that when he went to the Pentagon for his predeployment interview, one of O'Beirne's deputies launched into a 10-minute soliloquy about domestic politics that included statements opposing abortion and supporting capital punishment. The staffer didn't agree with what was said, but he nodded. "I felt pressure to agree if I wanted to go to Baghdad," he said.

Many of those chosen by O'Beirne's office to work for the CPA lacked vital skills and experience. A 24-year-old who had never worked in finance - but had applied for a White House job - was sent to reopen Baghdad's stock exchange. The daughter of a prominent neoconservative commentator and a recent graduate from an evangelical university for home-schooled children were tapped to manage Iraq's $13bn (£6.7bn) budget, even though they had little experience in accounting.

"I'm not here for the Iraqis," one staffer said. "I'm here for George Bush."

The decision to send the loyal and the willing, instead of the best and the brightest, is now regarded by many as one of the Bush administration's gravest errors. Many of those selected because of their political fidelity spent their time trying to impose a conservative agenda on the postwar occupation, which sidetracked more important reconstruction efforts and squandered goodwill among the Iraqi people, according to many who participated in the reconstruction effort.

Endowed with billions of dollars in US reconstruction funds and a comparatively quiescent environment in the aftermath of the US invasion, the CPA was the US government's first and best hope to resuscitate Iraq - to establish order, promote rebuilding and assemble a viable government, all of which, experts believe, would have constricted the insurgency and mitigated the chances of civil war. Many of the basic tasks Americans struggle to accomplish today in Iraq - training the army, vetting the police, increasing electricity generation - could have been performed far more effectively in 2003 by the CPA.

But many CPA staff members were more interested in other things: in instituting a flat tax, in selling off government assets, in ending food rations and otherwise fashioning a new nation that looked a lot like the United States. Many of them spent their days cloistered in the walled-off enclave of the Green Zone.

Jay Hallen, aged 24, was restless. He didn't much like his job at a real-estate firm. His passion was the Middle East, and although he had never been there, he was intrigued enough to take Arabic classes and read histories of the region in his spare time.

He had mixed feelings about the war to topple Saddam, but he viewed the US occupation as a ripe opportunity and was delighted when the CPA said it wanted him in Baghdad. But the day he arrived in the city, his new boss, Thomas Foley, the CPA official in charge of privatisation, told Hallen that he wanted him to take charge of reopening the stock exchange.

"Are you sure?" Hallen asked. "I don't have a finance background." He had not followed the US stock markets. He had not studied economics.

"It's fine," Foley replied.

Before the war, Baghdad's stock exchange looked nothing like its counterparts elsewhere in the world. There were no computers or electronic displays. Trades were scrawled on pieces of paper and noted on large blackboards. If you wanted to buy or sell, you came to the exchange yourself and shouted your order to one of the traders.

Quickly absorbing the CPA's ambition during the optimistic days before the insurgency flared, Hallen didn't just want to reopen the exchange; he wanted to make it the best, most modern stock exchange in the Arab world. He wanted to promulgate a new securities law that would make the exchange independent of the finance ministry, with its own bylaws and board of directors. He wanted to install a computerised trading and settlement system.

Iraqis cringed at the plan. Their top priority was reopening the exchange, not setting up computers or enacting a new securities law. Brokers and traders wanted to go back to work. Investors wanted to buy and sell. "People are broke and bewildered," broker Talib Tabatabai had told Hallen. "Why do you want to create enemies? Let us open the way we were."

But Hallen was convinced that major changes had to be enacted. A nonprofit American organisation was tasked with rewriting the securities law, and offered assistance with training brokers and purchasing computers. Hallen began firing Iraqis. The old stock exchange employed 85 people - but Hallen was determined to create a lean, US-style exchange with just 40 salaried positions. He met each of the old employees and then chose 45 to sack. "It was not an easy time, because people in Iraq are not used to getting fired," he said.

Hallen nominated nine Iraqis to serve on the exchange's board of governors. As he met candidates, he screened them for proficiency in English - he later said that this was for his personal benefit - and for "a very American style of thinking in terms of business and capitalism".

By the spring of 2004, the securities law was ready. The stock exchange's board selected Tabatabai, the US-educated broker who had been so critical of Hallen, as its chairman. The board hired back the 45 workers whom Hallen had fired. The stock exchange didn't need more employees, but it didn't make sense to create enemies of fellow Iraqis.

And they didn't want to wait several more months for the computerised trading system to be up and running. They ordered dozens of DryErase boards to be installed on the trading floor instead. Tension between Hallen and the board grew. Hallen regarded the board as "stubborn and resistant to change". Board members couldn't understand why Hallen wouldn't leave them alone. It was their country, after all.

On June 22, Hallen left Iraq. Two days later, the stock exchange opened. Brokers barked orders to floor traders, who used their trusty whiteboards. Transactions were recorded not with computers but with small chits written on in ink.

I asked Tabatabai what would have happened if Hallen hadn't been assigned to reopen the stock exchange. He smiled. "We would have opened months earlier. He had grand ideas, but those ideas did not materialise. Those CPA people reminded me of Lawrence of Arabia."

The hiring of Bremer's most senior advisers was settled upon at the highest levels. Some were personally recruited by Bush. Others got their jobs because an influential Republican made a call on behalf of a friend or trusted colleague. That is what happened with James K Haveman Jr, who was selected to oversee the rehabilitation of Iraq's health care system. Haveman, a 60-year-old social worker, was largely unknown among international health experts, but he had connections. He had been the community health director for the former Republican governor of Michigan, John Engler, who recommended him to Paul D Wolfowitz, the deputy secretary of defence.

The job of rehabilitating Iraq's health-care system had previously been held by Frederick M Burkle Jr, a physician with a master's degree in public health and postgraduate degrees from Harvard, Yale, Dartmouth, and the University of California at Berkeley. Burkle was a naval reserve officer with two bronze stars and a deputy assistant administrator at the US Agency for International Development (USAID). He taught at the Johns Hopkins School of Public Health, where he specialised in disaster-response issues. During the first Gulf war, he provided medical aid to Kurds in northern Iraq. He had worked in Kosovo and Somalia. And in the lead-up to the invasion of Iraq, he had been put in charge of organising the US response to the expected public health crisis in Iraq. A USAID colleague called him the "single most talented and experienced post-conflict health specialist working for the United States government".

But Burkle was replaced. A senior official at USAID told him that the White House wanted a "loyalist" in the job. Burkle had a wall of degrees, but he didn't have a picture of himself with the president.

Haveman was well-travelled, but most of his overseas trips were in his capacity as a director of International Aid, a faith-based relief organisation that provided health care while promoting Christianity in the developing world. Prior to his stint in government, Haveman ran a large Christian adoption agency in Michigan that urged pregnant women not to have abortions.

He faced a considerable task: preventing disease, providing clean drinking water and improving care at hospitals were a matter of urgency; so, too, was obtaining drugs and medical supplies. And hospitals and clinics were out of antibiotics, painkillers, and other medicines.

Haveman arrived in Baghdad with his own military aide, his own chief of staff and his own priorities. He approached problems the way a health-care administrator in America would: he focused on preventive measures to reduce the need for hospital treatment. He urged the health ministry to mount an antismoking campaign, and assigned an American from the CPA team, who turned out to be a closet smoker, to lead the public-education effort. Several members of Haveman's team noted wryly that Iraqis faced far greater dangers than a little tobacco.

Medical care in Iraq had long been free. Under Saddam, the government picked up the tab. That was anathema to Haveman, who insisted that Iraqis should pay a small fee every time they saw a doctor. He also decided to allocate almost all of the health ministry's $793m (£407m) to renovating maternity hospitals and building 150 new community medical clinics. His intention was "to shift the mind-set of the Iraqis that you don't get health care unless you go to a hospital".

A noble goal, no doubt, but there was no money set aside to rehabilitate the emergency rooms and operating theatres at Baghdad's hospitals, even though injuries from insurgent attacks were now the country's single largest public health challenge.

· This is an edited extract from Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, published next month by Bloomsbury. To order the book for £11.99 (rrp £12.99) with free uk p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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"There's a lot left to be done"

Post by Guysanto » Wed Feb 21, 2007 7:12 pm


Before the formal handover to the Iraqis, Paul Bremer, the US viceroy in Baghdad, insisted the country was 'fundamentally changed for the better' by the occupation. But assassinations, car bombs and attacks on the country's oil supply told a different story, says Rajiv Chandrasekaran in the final exclusive extract from his new book.

'There's a lot left to be done'

Rajiv Chandrasekaran
Wednesday February 21, 2007

In the summer of 2004, as Lewis Paul Bremer III, America's viceroy to Iraq and head of the Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA), which had run Iraq's government for 14 months, prepared to depart, electricity generation remained stuck at around 4,000 megawatts. This resulted in less than nine hours of power a day to most Baghdad homes - instead of the 6,000 megawatts he had pledged to provide. The new army had fewer than 4,000 trained soldiers, a third of what he had promised. Seventy per cent of police officers on the street had not received any CPA-funded training. Attacks on American forces and foreign civilians averaged more than 40 a day, a threefold increase since January. Assassinations of political leaders and sabotage of the country's oil and electricity infrastructure occurred almost daily. In a CPA-sponsored poll of Iraqis taken a few weeks before the handover of sovereignty, 85% of respondents said they lacked confidence in Bremer's occupation administration.

Because of bureaucratic delays, only 2% of the $18.4bn (£9.5bn) Supplemental [as the CPA's US-funded budget was known] had been spent. Nothing had been expended on construction, healthcare, sanitation or the provision of clean water, and more money had been devoted to administration than all projects related to education, human rights, democracy and governance combined. At the same time, the CPA had managed to dole out almost all of a $20bn (£10bn) development fund fed by Iraq's oil sales, more than $1.6bn (£820m) of which had been used to pay Halliburton, primarily for trucking fuel into Iraq.

In early June, I ventured to the Daura power plant in southern Baghdad. It was supposed to be a model of the American effort to rebuild Iraq. Bombed in the 1991 Gulf war and neglected by Saddam's government, the station could operate at no more than a quarter of its rated capacity, which had led to prolonged blackouts in the capital. After CPA specialists had toured the decrepit facility in 2003, they had vowed to bring it back to life. It was placed at the top of a list of priority projects, and German and Russian firms were hired to make repairs. But the paroxysm of violence that gripped the country in the spring halted reconstruction work at Daura and almost everywhere else.

The German contractors fled in April. The Russians departed in late May, after two of their colleagues were shot dead as they approached the plant in a minivan. As I walked through the power station, I saw parts strewn on the floor, awaiting installation. Iraqi technicians in blue coveralls loitered and smoked cigarettes. In the turbine room, graffiti on the wall read, "Long live the resistance."

Work proceeded at a far more active pace at recruiting facilities for Iraq's army and police force. The CPA and the US military had finally settled upon what it deemed to be a successful training strategy once Bernie Kerik and Walt Slocombe [the civilian in charge of the Iraqi army] were out of the picture. The CPA's missteps, a senior American general told me, "cost us one very valuable year".

Within the Green Zone [the seven-square-mile American enclave in central Baghdad], there was an aching sense of a mission unaccomplished. "Did we really do what we needed to do? What we promised to do?" a senior CPA official asked over drinks at the bar of the al-Rasheed hotel. "Nobody here believes that."

In an interview before his departure, Bremer insisted to me that Iraq was "fundamentally changed for the better" by the occupation. The CPA, he said, had put Iraq on a path towards a democratic government and an open economy after more than three decades of a brutal socialist dictatorship. Among his biggest accomplishments, he said, were the lowering of Iraq's tax rate, the liberalisation of foreign-investment laws and the reduction of import duties.

As our conversation was drawing to a close, I asked a broad question about unfinished business. "When I step back," he answered, "there's a lot left to be done."

The day after my interview with Bremer, I met Adel Abdel-Mahdi, a leading Shia politician, for breakfast in the front courtyard of his modest house. As we nibbled from a plate of dates and pastries, I asked him what the CPA's biggest mistake had been. He didn't hesitate. "The biggest mistake of the occupation," he said, "was the occupation itself."

He, of course, had wanted the US to anoint exiled politicians as Iraq's new rulers in April 2003. But his self-interest aside, what he said was true. Freed from the grip of their dictator, the Iraqis believed that they should have been free to chart their own destiny, to select their own interim government, and to manage the reconstruction of their shattered nation. Their country wasn't Germany or Japan, a thoroughly defeated second-world-war aggressor to be ruled by the victorious. Iraqis needed help - good advice and ample resources - from a support corps of well-meaning foreigners, not a full-scale occupation with imperial Americans cloistered in a palace of the tyrant, eating bacon and drinking beer, surrounded by Gurkhas and blast walls.

"If this place succeeds," a CPA friend told me before he left, "it will be in spite of what we did, not because of it."

· This is an edited extract from Imperial Life in the Emerald City by Rajiv Chandrasekaran, published next month by Bloomsbury. To order the book for £11.99 (rrp £12.99) with free uk p&p, go to guardian.co.uk/bookshop or call 0870 836 0875.

Guardian Unlimited © Guardian News and Media Limited 2007

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