On the eve of his departure for Baghdad to launch the most ambitious American nation-building effort since the 1940s, the retired U.S. Army general assigned to run the vast project said the Bush administration will persevere until Iraq has an elected government after 30 years of repressive one-party rule.
"We won't quit until we know they're on the right road," said retired Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, who intends to move his headquarters to the Iraqi capital on Monday. "To get them comfortable with self-government I don't think will take long. Once they're comfortable with it and they realize where they are and what they have, I think they'll take off. I have high hopes for this."
Washington will not dictate the form or makeup of the representative democracy Iraqis ultimately choose, Garner said. That leaves open the possibility that groups within the country's Shiite Muslim majority that favor a religion-based government could rise to power -- a prospect opposed by those in the Bush administration who envision Iraq as a model of secular pluralism in the Arab world. Since the war's end, Shiites have already staged large protests calling for the establishment of an Islamic state and withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq.
"All we care about is them establishing a democratic process that creates a government that expresses the freely elected will of the people," Garner said. "What kind of government, what kind of process -- that's up to them. And we'll do anything they want us to do."
Garner acknowledged that the obstacles include poverty, ethnic rivalry and substantial opposition to U.S. occupation. But he said in an interview that although Iraq may be chaotic now, "at the end of the thing, there'll be more up days than down days."
Garner and the staff of more than 400 military officers and civilians who will follow him to Baghdad are embarking on an enormously complex mission ordered by the White House to remake Iraq without leaving many fingerprints. Their challenge is to reorganize the government and restart the economy with the backing of U.S. military force, but without making new enemies along the way.
Already facing significant skepticism, the Americans will run ministries that in some cases have been destroyed by allied bombs or ransacked by looters. They must organize workers cowed by unrest and uncertain about their prospects. They aim to oversee the introduction of a new currency and the rescue of a shattered health care system while creating an Iraqi police force and a military stripped of its most ruthless commanders.
A member of Garner's team, eager to get started after weeks of planning sessions in neighboring Kuwait, said the Americans can best hope to act as a "rudder" for Iraqi society in the postwar vacuum. "The conception is so daunting," he said, "it's hard to be optimistic."
Garner's tasks start with humanitarian aid and reach to economic reconstruction and the establishment of an independent government. Little has happened on any of those fronts since the war began a month ago, to the consternation of relief organizations and many Iraqis who expected aid to arrive sooner. When his staff members take their places in Iraqi ministries and assume authority over Iraq's 18 provinces, the clock will begin ticking faster.
"The problem with this is everybody's impatient," said Garner, a three-star general who retired to prosperity as a defense contractor before returning to head the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. "You can push a lot, and we'll do that, but things kind of happen on their own timeline. Sometimes that's quicker than you want. Most times it's slower."
Garner, who is close to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, has assembled a staff from across the U.S. government and private industry, from State Department specialists in the Arab world to retired generals accustomed to organizing large military operations. There are Commerce Department officials who know trade and Treasury Department employees expert in the establishment of national currencies. More than 20 judges and lawyers have been recruited to remake Iraq's judicial system.
The Pentagon and its alumni, however, are calling the most important shots. Rumsfeld and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell have sparred over control of humanitarian aid efforts and roles for more than a half-dozen diplomats initially rejected by Rumsfeld for positions on Garner's team. They were approved after a messy fight.
Private aid agencies have complained that Garner does not fully appreciate their need to appear independent of the military. A senior British officer said he is wary of the U.S.-led postwar operation because of its heavy reliance on the armed forces and former commanders. "They could use more diplomats," he said, adding that people in camouflage fatigues aren't good "at setting up ministries."
Iraqis at various levels of society have also expressed suspicion -- or, in some cases, outrage -- that U.S. forces are taking command of the country. President Bush has said the U.S. occupation is necessary but temporary, with Iraqis likely to regain control of portions of their government soon. A resumption of full sovereignty, however, could take two years or longer, U.S. officials have said.
Garner is likely to play a significant part in those decisions. And because Garner has been given what one Washington postwar planner called "organizational authority and power," he is likely to bear considerable responsibility.
"We'll be turning portions of the government over to them, not in any time phase, but when they're ready to accept it," Garner said.
For more than a month, Garner has stayed close to a chalet at the well-guarded Hilton resort in Kuwait where hundreds of members of his growing staff awaited military clearance to move their operations to Iraq. The chalet is a hive of reconstruction preparations, with rooms full of senior aides tapping at laptops on document-covered tables, others conferring outdoors around a private pool. Garner wants to get moving.
"There's got to be something wrong with you to sit in a beachside resort, which is really plush and nice, and wishing every day you weren't there," Garner said, surveying the Persian Gulf. "In Baghdad, you can meet with the leaders, you can go out and look at things. You have the feeling for what's going on, as best as an American can have. You can get ideas, you can deal with the blends of cultures and tribes and leaders. You can do everything there."
During his time in Kuwait, he has avoided discussing the specifics of his evolving plans, but he has not escaped controversy. Some of the questions come from a post-retirement history that includes a 1997 junket to Israel and his endorsement of Israel's security policy against Palestinian violence. Garner was one of 42 retired high-ranking officers who signed a statement drafted by the Jewish Institute of National Security Affairs praising Israeli security forces for their "remarkable restraint" in dealing with the Palestinian uprising and criticizing the Palestinian leaders for fostering hate among children.
If he had it to do over, Garner said today, he would not have signed the statement. Yet he also discounted the resulting criticism, saying his intentions were misconstrued.
"I was a little bit disenchanted with the Clinton administration when I signed that," he said. "I thought they were handling things wrong. Kind of my lash back at the administration. It really didn't have much to do with either the Israelis or the Palestinians. The thing about me being a Zionist is a bunch of bunk."
Life as a lightning rod is a dramatic shift from his retirement in an Orlando suburb where he and his wife of 44 years were dipping into "a hell of a lot of money" made from post-military work that included becoming president of SY Technology Inc., a California-based defense company that has reaped tens of millions of dollars in Pentagon missile defense contracts, now part of L-3 Communications Corp. If he had not signed on for his current job, Garner said, he would have been fishing last week in Mexico.
The key to Garner's selection as head of the Pentagon's reconstruction agency was his experience in northern Iraq in 1991, where he won high marks from the Defense Department and Kurdish leaders for leading Operation Provide Comfort, which resettled hundreds of thousands of Kurds who had fled Iraqi forces after an abortive uprising.
Near the end of his work there, Garner said, he was handed a manila envelope from a 10-year-old Kurdish boy who had sought refuge with relatives in the mountains. The envelope contained four drawings of soldiers playing with children. Garner later learned that the boy's parents had been gassed by the Iraqi military in the 1980s.
The lesson of the experience, Garner said, was that the boy's perception of the military had quickly moved from fear to enthusiasm after the arrival of U.S. troops.
"That's been with me ever since," Garner said. "I thought if there was a chance to do that again, especially on a bigger scale, I wanted to be a part of it. That's the guts of the whole thing."
Garner, an unabashed optimist even when describing the obstacles ahead, described the reconstruction agency's progress as promising.
"You're always hesitant to say something like that because the first time you say it, everything falls apart on you," said Garner. Then again, he added, "At the end of the day, I'm always better than Saddam Hussein."