Who's in charge here? That's what exhausted Iraqis increasingly are wondering. But unfortunately, an unresolved political quarrel back in Washington about who should lead postwar reconstruction seems to be hampering U.S. strategy for the recovery of this battered nation.
A scene here this week illustrates the confusing political situation -- and the danger that the Bush administration's policy is still undermined by a split between the Pentagon and the CIA and State Department over the role of Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi:
It's Monday afternoon, and Chalabi -- the Pentagon's preferred opposition leader -- is sitting in the garden of his new headquarters at the Mansour Hunting Club, a grandly named but somewhat threadbare complex in a Baghdad suburb. Outside his gate a throng of petitioners is clamoring for jobs or favors. They believe Chalabi, who returned home last week after many years in exile, is America's man in Baghdad.
Chalabi seems more than willing to play this role. He has been spending his time in meetings with delegations of tribal leaders, businessmen and even members of the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein trying to solve their problems. It's not clear on whose authority Chalabi is acting, but then, nothing is clear in the turmoil of postwar Iraq. He does have a liaison officer with him from the U.S. Army's Centcom, which suggests he has not lost his Pentagon patrons.
As Chalabi and I sit talking in the garden, there is a sudden commotion across the lawn. Pushing his way past security guards is the man who recently claimed the title of "governor" of postwar Baghdad, Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi. He was for years a Syrian-based member of Chalabi's opposition group, the Iraqi National Congress, so most people assume they are allies. But the shouts and angry gestures make clear there is now a strong rivalry between the two.
For Zubaidi, too, is spending his days meeting with tribal leaders and Iraqi notables. And he, too, appears to have his own set of American patrons. His aides say he has been meeting daily at 5 p.m. with a group of U.S. officials to discuss plans for restoring services and security to the city.
For a moment, it looks as if the Chalabi-Zubaidi confrontation in the garden is going to explode. Security guards are shouting and gesturing menacingly with their automatic weapons, and later there is a loud but accidental volley of fire. The two opposition leaders retreat to Chalabi's private quarters. They emerge 45 minutes later holding hands, and things seem to be settled. But are they?
That same afternoon, a former U.S. ambassador named Barbara Bodine, who is the Baghdad coordinator for the official U.S. reconstruction program under retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, tells reporters that she doesn't recognize Zubaidi's authority and won't deal with him. That's a perhaps unintended boost for Chalabi, since it reinforces his position as the man to see.
But the next day (yesterday) Zubaidi is still in business at his headquarters on the 17th floor of the Baghdad Sheraton. He meets in the morning with a local sheik from the Shiite suburbs of Baghdad and offers to help free a Shiite religious leader who is supposedly being held by the Americans. "Zubaidi is our voice," the sheik tells me, because he can get the Americans to fix the situation.
Even as Zubaidi dickers with the sheik, a large crowd of angry Shiites is chanting and waving banners in the street demanding action. They are a noisy reminder that Iraqis are losing patience with America.
Postwar reconstruction is always messy. But in this case a bad situation is being made worse by the Bush administration's failure to resolve a longstanding feud over what role Chalabi and his group should play. Civilian officials at the Pentagon clearly want him to have the lead role. State Department and CIA officials don't trust him and want a broader strategy that combines external and internal figures. Chalabi, for his part, mistrusts the CIA and thinks it has badly botched operations in Iraq.
Meanwhile, there is Garner's group, which plans to sponsor its own political process. How all these pieces fit together isn't clear, and it's becoming a subject of anxious gossip among Iraqis.
"The fault is President Bush's," says one player in this political battle of Baghdad. This man contends that the CIA is meddling in what is now a military show. "The CIA was in charge until the first bomb dropped, but they're no longer in charge."
In this fragile postwar moment, a clear U.S. strategy is needed. If Chalabi is America's man, that should be made clear to Iraqis. If the U.S. government doesn't back him, that should be made clear, too. The confusion can't be allowed to continue. It's dangerous.