Published August 02, 2003
BAGHDAD, Iraq – Bernard Kerik was dubbed the "Baghdad Terminator" after he summarily dismissed a newly reinstated Iraqi official who turned out to be a member of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party (search).
A British journalist happened to be there and the ex-New York police commissioner had a new unofficial title.
"If you're going to criticize me for terminating Baath Party members go ahead. I like that," Kerik tells an Associated Press reporter accompanying him on his day's rounds. "You can't please everyone. We're in Iraq; this is a war zone. Perhaps you can do things nicely, but there's times you can't."
Kerik's brusque manner, rarely mincing words and speaking directly to the point, can be grating for many Middle Easterners, but he also listens, both to subordinates and people on the street.
Banging his fist on a desk, he brings to order a meeting of advisers at the interim Interior Ministry, which oversees the Iraqi police force he's responsible for re-establishing.
Then Kerik speaks softly and slowly. "I want to know what you're doing, what you're supposed to be doing, what you need to do it."
Spotting an unfamiliar face, he shoots a question: "Who are you?" The woman springs to attention — sputtering her name, department and duties.
Kerik listens, sipping coffee from a plastic cup.
The meeting slogs along. The Baghdad International Airport (search) is ready to reopen but still unsafe. Fire trucks are sitting idle because the bureaucracy is snarled. Traffic police are being ignored or abused.
Kerik says he is unfazed by the magnitude of problems facing the U.S.-led interim administration: sabotage, guerrilla attacks, the heat, decrepit electric and water systems — and the impatience of Iraqis and the rest of the world.
When he was police commissioner in New York, he and his team turned it into one of the world's safest cities, and that will happen in Iraq, too, he says.
"It took eight years and I had every resource available — information technology, a readymade staff — I had everything you could imagine and it took eight years. We've only been here for 100 days and you want what? Come on!"
Kerik dashes about Baghdad with the South African bodyguards he inherited from retired Gen. Jay Garner, the first chief of Iraq's interim administration.
They travel in two armored GMC Suburbans, weaving through traffic as everyone — including Kerik and the driver — hold their guns at the ready. He goes everywhere with a bulletproof vest and a 9mm pistol.
Kerik understands Iraqis are frustrated, because he takes time to listen to them when he goes out, but he says there are no quick solutions.
"We're not going to take a Band-Aid and fix it. If you want electricity for the country, we have to start from scratch," he says.
But persuading Iraqis things are getting better is hard, he admits. "You're not going to change their minds, so just get on with the program because it will change."
Kerik pays a call on acting Baghdad Police Chief Hassan al-Obeidi, recovering from an injury during a weapons raid a day earlier.
"He's a good man. He's the best. I love him," Kerik proclaims as he walks into al-Obeidi's office. The two men slap each other's knees and grasp hands as they laugh and chat.
"You need anything?" Kerik asks. Only to get back to work, al-Obeidi answers. Kerik scrunches his fingers together and uses a common Arabic expression — "shway, shway," which means "slowly, slowly." They both burst out laughing again.
The pair review recent work by the still-evolving Iraqi police — raids, weapons hauls, kidnapped children returned safely to their families.
Leaving police headquarters, Kerik walks past a line of mortar shells and rifle clips found in a raid.
"Eddie, I'm hungry," he says to his military aide, Army Reserve Capt. Edward Bahdi, who was serving with the 4th Infantry Division before Kerik drafted him.
The two have a personal connection. "His brother-in-law is my cousin," explains Bahdi, a military lawyer stationed at Fort Hood, Texas.
The team drives to an Italian restaurant, where the owner ushers Kerik to a corner table. The bodyguards fan out, one in the rear courtyard, one in the front, one by the flowers at the front desk and the fourth waiting in the car.
Tearing into a giant bowl of spaghetti and meat sauce, Kerik talks about his favorite New York restaurants. He lives on the Upper East Side with his wife of five years, Hala, and their two daughters — Angeline, 9 months, and Celine, a 3-year-old who is "the only person who still has the ability to boss me around in the United States." He has two grown children, Joseph and Lisa.
Kerik says his decision to come to Baghdad was "99.9 percent" linked to the Sept. 11 attacks, which occurred while he was police commissioner in New York. He retired in January 2002 and now runs a risk-management firm with former New York Mayor Rudolph Giuliani (search).
He predicts his job will be completed in the next two months, and then he will leave.
Until then, his greatest frustration remains the impatience of the international community and the people back home.
"Let's learn from the terrorists," Kerik says. "These guys had the ability because they had patience. They waited for us to be complacent. If we don't have the patience to complete this mission, we will fail and they will win and that can't happen. It's not going to be easy but we have to do it."