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Bremer weary, hopeful, as handover approaches

As the June 30 deadline looms for the United States to hand over authority to an Iraqi government, NBC's Campbell Brown talked to Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator, about the challenges ahead.

Ambassador Paul Bremer, President George W. Bush’s man in Iraq, was out front with his announcement of the capture of former Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. "We got him," Bremer simply said.

But what you haven’t seen are his grueling 18-hour days trying to bring religious and ethnic factions together in democracy -- by June 30, so he can go home. He’s close to the end now. How does it feel?

“It feels good,” said Bremer. “I'm looking forward to getting back to my family.”

As of Tuesday, it is 36 days and counting, after more than a year in charge. But he still starts each day with lessons in Arabic, followed by the morning staff meeting. On Tuesday, he was also taken to mourn the loss of a friend killed by a car bomb Monday. 

But his position makes him an obvious target for insurgents, so he was forced to take a helicopter to one meeting Tuesday, after his security team turned his motorcade around because of a possible threat.

One on one, he is candid about what's been achieved. In retrospect, is there something he would have done differently?

“I think it’s been a difficult job,” said Bremer. “The insurgency has proven to be more resilient than I think we thought. The infrastructure here is much worse than we have reason to believe… and that's been a constant problem. The electricity, the oil, the hospitals, the schools — completely run down over a period of 35 years.”

Bremer is defensive about his most criticized decision — disbanding the Iraqi army, saying the army dissolved on its own after the fall of Saddam.

“The army melted away,” he said. “The army was mostly conscripts. They were treated brutally, as everyone was under Saddam, and they basically went away. They threw down arms and went away — the ones we didn’t kill or capture.”

Bremer is still trying to win over the Shiite leader some say is the most powerful in Iraq — Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani.

Why has Bremer not had a face-to-face meeting with Sistani?

“He has himself refused to meet with anybody representing the coalition, which he considers, as it is, to be an occupying authority,” said Bremer.

Bremer says he has friendly talks with Sistani through intermediaries and is relying on more supportive Iraqis — like respected member of the Iraqi governing council, Dr. Adnan Pachachi.

Pachachi is a leading candidate for a seat with the interim government being chosen now by United Nations envoy Lakdar Brahimi.

Does Pachachi see himself playing a prominent role in the new government? “I don’t know,” he said. “I have no idea.”

Will this new government have legitimacy?

I think, yes,” said Pachachi. “This is a government whose main function — it’s to prepare the country for the elections next January, when you are going to have a democratically elected government. There will be no question of legitimacy then.”

It's people like Pachachi who will have to lead Iraq through what Bremer expects will be a tumultuous period between the handover and January elections.

“There are a lot of tensions in society now,” said Bremer, “not surprising because they've been under the boot of a terrible dictator for 35 years and when the boot comes off a lot of things spring to the surface, including disagreements. And the way those get resolved is the way they get resolved in other peaceful countries — through elections. And they will have elections in January. That will be the beginning of process, not end,. There will continue to be tension and violence here, but the way you resolve those issues is through dialogue and elections.”

Is there unfinished business in Iraq?

No, I think we're going to be in a reasonably good shape here,” he said. “We got a government put together in the next week or so. Another step towards a democratic Iraq. There are going to be a lot of ups and downs in the next six weeks, a lot of people who are going to try and stop this process — former regime groups and terrorists.”

Bremer is weary, but hopeful, with 36 days to go.