By Karen DeYoung
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, March 24, 2003
The appointment of L. Paul Bremer III early this month as the new head of the U.S. reconstruction effort in Iraq, portrayed by the Bush administration as part of a smoothly running postwar plan, was a hastily arrived-at decision by a White House increasingly worried about collapsing civil order in Iraq, according to senior administration officials.
The decision to dispatch Bremer to Baghdad two months before retired Gen. Jay M. Garner was supposed to be replaced in the post came after senior White House advisers and President Bush agreed that both the image and reality of the reconstruction effort were flagging, officials said.
Since Iraq capitulated to U.S. forces on April 9, the administration has fended off rising criticism that its planning for the postwar period was inadequate. Widespread looting and destruction have been described as both natural exuberance and understandable revenge for years of mistreatment by ousted Iraqi president Saddam Hussein. Ongoing violence has been blamed on Hussein loyalists. Delays in providing electricity, water and medical care have been attributed to the decrepit state in which Hussein left the nation's infrastructure.
But since the end of April, according to accounts of several senior officials, the White House has been actively looking for ways to temper expectations about the pace and early success of reconstruction, and has begun taking steps to improve a situation it saw in danger of going badly wrong.
"Had things been going swimmingly," one senior official said this week, "we might now be beginning the process" of naming Garner's replacement.
Postwar plans drawn up in January and February included the eventual installation of a senior civilian "of stature" to be in charge of non-military aspects of the occupation during an indefinite period between Garner's early efforts and the election of an Iraqi government. Bush, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell had interviewed and signed off on Bremer in April, but announcements of his appointment and departure were still seen as weeks, if not months, away.
Powell was "surprised" by the decision to advance Bremer's departure for Iraq, one official said, "but it was a nice surprise" since Bremer is a former Foreign Service officer. Rumsfeld, who was traveling overseas when the news broke here on May 1, approved of Bremer but was said to be irritated that reports portrayed the sudden decision as a victory for Powell. Rumsfeld issued a terse statement praising Garner and saying no decision on any change had been announced.
Garner, who now works for Bremer, originally signed up to stay in Iraq until July 1. It is not clear how long he will remain.
Administration officials do not dispute that part of the Bremer decision was based on a feeling that he conforms more to the image they want to project. Garner is a rumpled, balding and friendly figure who, on the relatively few occasions he appeared in public in Iraq, favored open-collar shirts. Bremer, an official said, is much more "telegenic" and has appeared before television cameras in Iraq in a suit.
Most important, in the administration view, is Bremer's no-nonsense demeanor and projection of authority.
Within days of his arrival in Baghdad, Bremer reversed a decision, announced by Garner only two weeks before, to put an Iraqi interim authority in place by the end of May. Overriding complaints from former Iraqi opposition leaders hoping to step quickly into positions of power, Bremer said that would be at least the middle of July, and indicated local leaders would play a greater role.
This week, Bremer decreed that as many as 30,000 top members of Hussein's Baathist Party were ineligible for government jobs, reversing initial Pentagon plans to retain high officials less tainted by ties with Hussein to aid the effort to get services quickly up and running.
As part of the reorganization, officials said, Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House envoy to exile groups in Baghdad and the main organizer of two inconclusive postwar political conferences, was pulled back from the Iraq effort and told to refocus his energies on a different part of his portfolio -- Iran and Afghanistan.
The changes, while injecting a breath of fresh momentum, have left the administration with mixed messages about the state of affairs in Iraq. It continues to insist that everything is going according to long-laid plans, even as it reassures Congress and the American public that steps are being taken to correct unanticipated problems.
In testimony Thursday to the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said "the situation in Iraq right now is difficult -- it's very difficult." But "despite claims that there were no plans for peace operations in the wake of military operations," Wolfowitz said, the plans now being implemented were "drawn up long before the war to strengthen and rebuild Iraq. Assertions that we are already failing . . . reflect both an incomplete understanding of the situation as it existed in Iraq before the war and an unreasonable expectation of where we should be now."
In varying degrees, committee members of both parties said they were unsure what the administration was doing in Iraq, but were quite certain it was not enough. "Victory is at risk," said committee Chairman Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) who criticized Pentagon reticence in keeping Congress informed. Sen. Christopher J. Dodd (D-Conn.) was more direct: "To be quite honest, it is very hard to fathom what the administration's strategy is with respect to the immediate stabilization of the situation, let alone the longer term reconstruction in Iraq."
The hearing Thursday was the first in a series Lugar has called to learn more about the reconstruction effort. The House held its own hearing on the subject last week, under International Relations Committee Chairman Henry J. Hyde (R-Ill.). Lugar, Hyde and the ranking Democrats on both committees wrote Thursday to the General Accounting Office to ask for ongoing oversight of the entire reconstruction effort. "We stand ready to support you in gaining timely and full access" to the administration's work in Iraq, the letter said.
More than defending what is happening in Iraq, Wolfowitz defined success for the moment as what had not happened. There had been no mass exodus of refugees, no humanitarian crisis, no widespread destruction of oil wells, and no use of weapons of mass destruction, he said. He blamed most of the problems, including a lack of security and essential services, on neglect and repression under Hussein, ongoing sabotage and attacks by organized Baathist Party remnants, and a military campaign that succeeded faster and more thoroughly than anticipated.
In response to senators citing media reports describing the slow pace of reconstruction and ongoing chaotic violence, Wolfowitz appeared to both agree and disagree. "As press accounts continue to report what is wrong, I would say, we don't want less of these reports, we want more -- because we are eager to see revelations in the press about what needs our attention," he said.
But later, he said that "much of what I read on this subject suggests a fundamental misunderstanding about the nature of the security problem in Iraq, and in particular, a failure to appreciate that a regime which had tens of thousands of thugs and war criminals on its payroll does not disappear overnight."
The administration's effort to acknowledge the ongoing violence, but blame it on Hussein holdouts, has sometimes appeared at odds with military assessments. Maj. Gen. Buford Blount, who commands the 20,000 troops of the 3rd Infantry Division in Baghdad, said last week that "about 90 percent" of the security problem "is common criminals -- the looters, the car thefts, attempted bank robberies, et cetera -- and only about 10 percent . . . is a holdover from the previous regime."