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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The former U.S. ambassador brought in to revamp America's foundering reconstruction efforts in Iraq vigorously defended the occupation plans Thursday and rejected suggestions that the United States has allowed the capital to descend into criminal chaos.

With gunshots echoing outside and black smoke from a looted building rising in the distance, L. Paul Bremer III rejected widespread perceptions in Baghdad that the United States is allowing crime to go unchecked.

"This is not a country in anarchy," Bremer said at his first news conference since arriving in Iraq on Monday. "People are going about their business. They are going about their lives."

Bremer's appointment is designed to bring a stronger, more politically savvy hand to America's reconstruction effort. The failure to get a handle on crime has stymied U.S. efforts to push the reconstruction plans along and has cast a pall over the mood of many capital residents.

"What is happening to our town?" bank manager Ekram Mohammed lamented as she arrived for work Thursday morning after hearing more stories overnight about kidnappings. "Bush said there would be peace, but there is none."

Bremer acknowledged such concerns but said military forces were preparing to put more soldiers and police on Baghdad's streets to get the problem under control. The former ambassador to the Netherlands denied reports that he had floated the idea of shooting looters to send a new tough-on-crime message.

As Bremer spoke, looters a few blocks away were scrambling through the skeleton of the Ministry of Information, which caught fire as they scavenged the ravaged building.

Along with tackling crime, Bremer announced plans to block key members of deposed President Saddam Hussein's Baath political party from returning to power.

"Those that were on high before, particularly the Baathists who used their power to oppress the Iraqi people, will be removed from office," said Bremer, the new civilian administrator of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.

In the early weeks of its rebuilding effort, the United States has drawn criticism for allowing well-connected members of Saddam's Baath Party to return to positions in key government agencies across Iraq. Such appointments have sparked protests and outrage from Iraqis who view top Baath Party officials as too closely tied to the former regime.

Copyright © 2003 Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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