A Pentagon-appointed former U.S. general yesterday prepared to establish administrative authority over parts of Iraq as hundreds of Iraqi exiles arrived in southern Iraq to assist the U.S. military authorities.
Retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner has been ensconced in Kuwait City with scores of aides who are prepared to work with Iraqis who will be selected to run various government ministries. Officials said Garner's team within days will deploy to points in the north and the south while waiting word that Baghdad has been secured.
Britain, the main partner in the U.S.-led invasion, and many other European countries have advocated a central role for the United Nations in the rebuilding of Iraq. But the rapid demise of Saddam Hussein's government has accelerated efforts to set up some kind of civil control even before the U.N.'s role is resolved.
Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, speaking to reporters traveling with President Bush for a meeting yesterday in Belfast with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, said Garner and his group of "regional coordinators" will help purge the Baath Party leadership in government ministries. This will evolve into "an interim authority, growing it into a full government, and the U.N. playing a role," Powell said.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, briefing reporters at the Pentagon, said the Iraqi military and intelligence services would be run by Americans for some undefined period. "But there are some activities that it might very well be proper to move over to Iraqis as soon as possible," he said, without elaborating. Other U.S. officials have said "soft ministries" such as health, agriculture and education are good candidates for relatively quick Iraqi control.
U.S. officials said the dispatch of "free Iraqis" from the north to the south -- including Iraqi opposition leader Ahmed Chalabi -- was designed to prevent chaos as looting was reported in southern Iraq. As U.S. forces make progress in eliminating armed resistance, they must find ways to stabilize and administer villages, towns and cities no longer under Hussein's control. Defense officials believed the moment was ripe to bring in Iraqi assistance.
But Chalabi's associates believe his arrival could also bolster his position in the scramble for leadership in the post-Hussein period, a goal long sought by his supporters in the Pentagon. "The forces advocating working with him got a huge shot in the arm over the weekend," said Randy Scheunemann, executive director of the Committee for the Liberation of Iraq. "It changes the complexion of the exile leader debate pretty dramatically."
The State Department has strenuously opposed a leading role for Chalabi, a London-based banker who left in Iraq in 1958, believing he lacks credibility and support. But State Department officials said yesterday they were willing to accept this new assignment for Chalabi and his compatriots because it was necessary to stabilize the country and get broader Iraqi involvement in what has been viewed overseas as a largely U.S.-led operation.
"Everywhere, we want to put an Iraqi face on it," said a senior State Department official, who reported that the Pentagon wanted Iraqi help in pacifying southern Iraq and sorting out local rivalries.
Army Gen. Tommy R. Franks, the commander of U.S. Central Command, "thought it was important to get these figures into the south, to help the British. I'm in favor of it because Gen. Franks is in favor of it," the official continued. "The only thing that matters is making sure that Gen. Franks gets what he wants."
Asked what the decision means for Chalabi, who has been lobbying for a launching pad for a postwar leadership position, the State Department official demurred. "I'm not sure," he said warily, "but there he is."
Rumsfeld yesterday dismissed suggestions the move was designed to signify a broader role for Chalabi. "No, I wouldn't think so," he said. "The Iraqi people are going to sort out what their Iraqi government ought to look like, and that is very clear."
Other Pentagon officials also said they were not trying to anoint Chalabi, but that the war had evolved to the point where U.S. commanders could spare the planes to fly the Iraqis in and make the effort to incorporate them into the battle plan. Also, there was a political assessment in Washington that now would be a good time to do something more that would show the Iraqis coming forward and participating in their own liberation.
Meanwhile, administration officials said a dispute between the Pentagon and State Department over the assignment of foreign service officers to Garner's team of roughly 200 people has been resolved in favor of the State Department.
Six of seven individuals once rejected by Rumsfeld have now been accepted and will go to Garner's operation, officials said. The seventh decided not to go to the region. The fate of an eighth person, an Interior Department staff member, could not be determined.
The State Department officers are expected to become what the administration calls "senior ministerial advisers." Their job will be to advise government offices in Baghdad, offering expertise and logistical help to resurrect the Iraqi bureaucracy.
"The fact that Gen. Garner is sort of moving and getting ready to do his work . . . that suggests we're getting ready for what happens after this campaign, as you have seen it for the last almost three weeks, comes to some culminating point of some end," Powell said.