-- L. Paul Bremer, for two more weeks lord of all he surveys in Iraq, is, at least in theory, paying a farewell call on one of his favorite ayatollahs. Shiite cleric Hussein Sadr has invited his friend to lunch, as he has many times during Bremer's 13 months here, and for Bremer it is something of a nostalgic moment in a schedule that leaves little space for sentiment. For an outsider invited along for the ride -- and what a ride it is, about which more below -- the visit provides a small window on some accomplishments of the past year, often little seen from the United States, and on some disappointments.
On July 1 Iraq will officially regain its sovereignty, the Coalition Provisional Authority will cease to exist, a U.S. ambassador will move into the palace that Bremer has called home since May 2003, and Bremer -- the CPA administrator, as viceroys are known in the modern age -- will slip back to Washington and private life. For the first time since December, he will take a day off. Presumably he will put away the desert boots that became his sartorial trademark, incongruously matched with his impeccable suits and pocket handkerchiefs.
He does not return home in the triumph he might once have envisioned. His visit to the ayatollah on Wednesday didn't make news, but there were plenty of headlines from Iraq that day: two U.S. soldiers killed and 21 wounded when a rocket slammed into their base 50 miles from here; a senior oil industry official gunned down in Iraq's north; a key oil pipeline sabotaged in the south. A fairly typical day, in other words.
In an interview before his lunchtime excursion, Bremer says "an understandable tendency to look at the daily stuff" tends to obscure the "broader picture." That canvas, he says, shows progress toward representative government and rule of law; devolution of power from the capital to local governments; a growing and liberalized economy; and institutions to combat corruption.
"These are structural changes that I think -- once the security situation is under better control -- will give Iraq the building blocks for a better future," Bremer says.
Then we don heavy flak jackets and slide into an armored SUV for the ride to Sadr's house, on the edge of one of Baghdad's poorest and most violent neighborhoods.
Bremer rides in a frantic convoy, military Humvees fore and aft. At most intersections, U.S. soldiers have blocked traffic, causing massive tie-ups on every side, but one panicked taxi driver finds himself in the convoy's path and swerves into a guardrail. When an exit ramp is unexpectedly blocked, forcing the convoy to a momentary halt, security guards instantly surround Bremer's car, menacingly facing out, guns ready.
Inside the Chevrolet Suburban, Bremer calmly studies briefing papers as if this is a normal way to travel. He murmurs something to his aide, Dan Senor, about private telephone ownership being up 47 percent; he points out a chart showing the stability of Iraqi currency trading since January. All the while, a helicopter roars above us, with more security guards scanning the ground from its open side doors.
This is the irony of Bremer's legacy. A ruthlessly methodical executive, he set numerical goals for himself more than a year ago and mostly met them: electricity restored, schools rebuilt, provincial councils formed. Yet he can barely travel in Baghdad. Polls show that he and his occupation are reviled, and Iraqis who cooperate with Americans are less safe than ever. It's far from clear that Bremer's "building blocks" will survive.
For this, many in Washington blame Bremer: It is said that he played the colonial master too grandly, he dissolved the army too rashly, he should have turned over sovereignty more quickly. But he took over from an administrator, Jay Garner, who was derided as not grand enough; if he had not sent Saddam Hussein's generals packing, the Kurds might have stormed out of the country; he believed sovereignty should be handed to an elected government, which is not on its face a crazy idea.
No doubt Bremer has micromanaged and has made his share of mistakes, coming too slowly to the realization that Iraqis would tolerate an occupation for far less time than he expected. But he was presented with no easy choices. He inherited a looted nation and an insurgency that was not anticipated, neither of which failings can be laid to him.
Safely arrived, Bremer is embraced effusively by Sadr and led into a book-lined dining room for a feast of unabashed excess. A moderate cousin of the younger firebrand cleric, Moqtada Sadr, who has challenged Bremer's authority, Hussein Sadr has his own complaints about the occupation, but he has no doubt that Iraq is better off than before the American intervention. He and Bremer share the goal that Iraq should be "a model for the Middle East in its freedom," Sadr says, and they have worked closely toward that objective. "But democracy cannot be reached easily," he cautions, "especially after 35 years of bloodshed, torture and mass graves."
As lunch ends, the cleric produces one more surprise: Lt. Col. Myles Miyamasu of the U.S. Army's 1st Cavalry Division, whose area of operations includes Sadr's mosque. The officer and the ayatollah have developed such warm relations that Miyamasu asked whether the cleric could arrange for a brief handshake with Bremer, and so an improbable trio -- Sadr, with his black turban and flowing white beard; Miyamasu, of Williamsburg, Va.; and Bremer -- discusses reconstruction projects, Shiite politics and other affairs of neighborhood and of state.
Bremer then slides back into his SUV for the bracing ride back to the Presidential Palace, and his last few days as nominal master of Mesopotamia.