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In Iraq, who is the kingmaker?

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The military won the war in Iraq, but will the peace be left to the generals as well? As State Department and Pentagon officials debate priorities, the question of who will run post-war Iraq is playing out on its streets and in the command tents of American occupying forces. All parties agree that stitching together a civil and political system from the fabric of a torn and frayed Iraqi culture will require patience, tact and an intimate knowledge of the region’s history. But even as a retired general takes charge of the overall transition, the question remains: who will really be calling the shots?

The infighting in Washington over Iraq’s interim government reflects the historic ideological differences between the military and the State Department, according to former diplomats and military officials being consulted by both camps.

The Pentagon wants a democratic framework in place with all the swiftness and precision of its laser-guided bombing campaign. The State Department favors a more cautious approach in which all factions of Iraqi society are given a voice in the process.

“We’ve done these things [nation building] quickly and we’ve done these things well but we’ve never done them well and quickly,” said James Dobbins, director of the RAND Corp. Center for International Security and Defense Policy, an institute that does a lot of work for both State and the Pentagon.

“I think it takes a good deal of patience,” said Dobbins, who served as special envoy to several nations on the receiving end of such nation building efforts, including Somalia, Bosnia and, most recently, Afghanistan.

“I think the process of turning power over to the Iraqis needs to be a step-by-step process rather than all or nothing. It’s not a light switch,” Dobbins said.

Boots and suits
It has been clear for months that the Bush Administration planned for the Pentagon to take the lead role in establishing an interim government in post-war Iraq. Even before the war began, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld had tapped Jay Garner, a retired three-star general and defense industry official, to run a special office to handle the reconstruction effort in Iraq — in effect, Iraq’s Viceroy.

On Monday Garner and 20 of his top aides moved into Baghdad from Kuwait City after months of planning. Within a week Garner’s full staff of 450 is expected to move into various administrative positions inside Baghdad as part of the U.S.-led interim governing body.

The Pentagon has “the boots on the ground,” said William Hartung, a foreign policy expert at the left-leaning World Policy Institute. “They won the war, they run the reconstruction, they have a lot of assets that [Secretary of State Colin] Powell and the folks at State don’t so they are in the driver’s seat for the moment.”

A Pentagon official, who requested anonymity, put it more bluntly: “Boots trump suits.”

Garner, who will play the role in Iraq that General Douglas MacArthur played in Japan, is a man whose resume is replete with accomplishments in both the public and private sector. He’s highly regarded in the military, where he’s known to be a decisive risk-taker, unafraid to improvise when the situation demands it. Garner also has direct experience in Iraq, where he won praise for his humanitarian work in northern Iraq with the Kurds after the 1991 Gulf War. Aid workers say he maneuvered Washington into providing military cover for the Kurdish refugees allowing them to move from the mountains and into a “safe haven” created in the town of Dohuk.

But Garner also has his critics. Many recall his testimony before Congress in defense of the Patriot missile system, which performed poorly in the Gulf War. His critics suspect Garner knowingly supported the controversial technology to curry favor with the Pentagon. Arab commentators portray him as too close to Rumsfeld and as a protégé of Washington hard-liners like Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, an advocate of using Iraq as a catalyst to spark democratic change across the region.

Herculean effort needed
The task before Garner is huge. It is weighted down by conflicting Iraqi political and economic agendas compounded by ancient blood feuds. Added to this already daunting situation is the tug-of-war going on behind him in Washington.

Garner recently told a State Department official, who requested anonymity, that he is increasingly frustrated by having “to serve too many masters.”

Some of Garner’s frustration was probably relieved by finally arriving in Baghdad this week to begin his mission. The retired general refused to speculate on how quickly he could accomplish his task of turning control of the country over to the Iraqi’s. “What we need to do from this day forward is to give birth to a new system in Iraq,” Garner told reporters as he toured what remained of a looted hospital. “It begins with us working together, but it is hard work and it takes a long time,” Garner said. “We will help you as long as you want us to.”

Beyond the actual timetable that would allow Iraqi’s to actually take the reins, Garner’s immediate challenge appears to be working within the framework of a reconstruction plan where no particular U.S. agency has ultimate sway. As one former government official familiar with the plan quipped, it may be “organized to fail.”

Asked if Garner has an impossible job in front him, the official added, “There’s always the possibility that adult supervision could be found to straighten out this food fight at some point.”

Exile returns
Garner’s job is further complicated by the controversy already swirling around Ahmad Chalabi, the Pentagon’s favorite to lead an Iraqi interim authority. Chalabi, who runs the so-called Iraqi National Congress, is a multi-millionaire Iraqi exile who returned to Iraq this month after an absence dating to 1958. Some view him as an ideal candidate. Others point to his lack of familiarity with modern Iraq and his uncertain political base in his homeland.

Further complicating Chalabi’s shaky resume as a potential leader is the stench of financial scandal hanging over his head.

In 1992 Chalabi was tried in absentia by a Jordanian court and sentenced to 22 years in jail on 31 charges of embezzlement and theft, among other charges, stemming from a $200 million banking scandal in that country. Chalabi has always said the charges were bogus and politically motivated.

Whatever the truth, the Jordanian scandal did not stop Rumsfeld and the Pentagon from approving a high-profile event in which the U.S. airlifted Chalabi and 700 armed supporters into the newly occupied city of Nasiriyah just two days ahead of the fall of Baghdad.

Many State Department officials went ballistic, according to intelligence sources grilled by State Department officials after the fact.

The Pentagon denies that the airlift was an effort to advance Chalabi’s claims on Iraq’s leadership. Indeed, Chalabi himself has gone out of his way to distance himself from the Pentagon, first, during a television interview in which he criticized Garner’s team for not taking action quickly enough, and then by saying that although he wanted to take part in the “reconstruction of a civilian society” he had no plans to hold a permanent political office.

“I am not a candidate for any post,” Chalabi told the French newspaper Le Monde.

From tent to town hall
And the discord among U.S. factions appears to permeate critical political issues beyond Iraq’s borders. According to State Department officials familiar with Colin Powell’s thinking, there is real concern that the Pentagon will continue to control the process of rebuilding and reforming Iraq, neglecting the need to patch up friendships frayed badly during the buildup to war.

Even as Powell works to repair fractured relationships with the French and Germans and even Canada, Pentagon officials appear content to let them simmer. Wolfowitz told U.S. lawmakers in mid-April, for instance, that France should “pay some consequences,” for their anti-war stance in the U.N.

Patching up relations within the U.N. has taken on a sense of urgency now. The reason: the U.N. currently controls all sales of Iraqi oil and it’s likely that the U.S. will have to get approval from the U.N. Security Council to use oil proceeds for reconstruction efforts. Anticipating the problem, President Bush last week publicly called for an end to the sanctions on Iraq.

In the meantime, Garner’s first moves appeared devoid of political overtones: he wants to get the electricity running and the water flowing. “Everything’s a challenge,” he said.

Among the immediate challenges facing Garner is the second “American-style big tent” meeting on April 25th for those wanting a voice in shaping the future of a post-Saddam Iraq.