WASHINGTON — The small circle of senior civilians in the Defense Department who dominated planning for postwar Iraq failed to prepare for the setbacks that have erupted over the past two months.
The officials didn't develop any real postwar plans because they believed that Iraqis would welcome U.S. troops with open arms and Washington could install a favored Iraqi exile leader as the country's leader. The Pentagon civilians ignored CIA and State Department experts who disputed them, resisted White House pressure to back off from their favored exile leader and when their scenario collapsed amid increasing violence and disorder, they had no backup plan.
Today, American forces face instability in Iraq, where they are losing soldiers almost daily to escalating guerrilla attacks, the cost of occupation is exploding to almost $4 billion a month and withdrawal appears untold years away.
"There was no real planning for postwar Iraq," said a former senior U.S. official who left government recently.
The story of the flawed postwar planning process was gathered in interviews with more than a dozen current and former senior government officials.
One senior defense official told Knight Ridder that the failure of Pentagon civilians to set specific objectives - short-, medium- and long-term - for Iraq's stabilization and reconstruction after Saddam Hussein's regime fell even left U.S. military commanders uncertain about how many and what kinds of troops would be needed after the war.
In contrast, years before World War II ended, American planners plotted extraordinarily detailed blueprints for administering postwar Germany and Japan, designing everything from rebuilt economies to law enforcement and democratic governments.
The disenchanted U.S. officials today think the failure of the Pentagon civilians to develop such detailed plans contributed to the chaos in post-Saddam Iraq.
"We could have done so much better," lamented a former senior Pentagon official, who is still a Defense Department adviser. While most officials requested anonymity because going public could force them out of government service, some were willing to talk on the record.
Ultimately, however, the responsibility for ensuring that post-Saddam planning anticipated all possible complications lay with Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice, current and former officials said.
The Pentagon planning group, directed by Undersecretary of Defense for Policy Douglas J. Feith, the department's No. 3 official, included hard-line conservatives who had long advocated using the American military to overthrow Saddam. Its day-to-day boss was William Luti, a former Navy officer who worked for Vice President Dick Cheney before joining the Pentagon.
The Pentagon group insisted on doing it its way because it had a visionary strategy that it hoped would transform Iraq into an ally of Israel, remove a potential threat to the Persian Gulf oil trade and encircle Iran with U.S. friends and allies. The problem was that officials at the State Department and CIA thought the vision was badly flawed and impractical, so the Pentagon planners simply excluded their rivals from involvement.
Feith, Luti and their advisers wanted to put Ahmad Chalabi - the controversial Iraqi exile leader of a coalition of opposition groups - in power in Baghdad. The Pentagon planners were convinced that Iraqis would warmly welcome the American-led coalition and that Chalabi, who boasted of having a secret network inside and outside the regime, and his supporters would replace Saddam and impose order. Feith, in a series of responses Friday to written questions, denied that the Pentagon wanted to put Chalabi in charge.
But Pentagon adviser Richard Perle, who at the time was the chairman of the Defense Policy Board - an influential group of outside advisers to the Pentagon - and is close to Feith and Luti, acknowledged in an interview that installing Chalabi was the plan.
Referring to the Chalabi scenario, Perle said: "The Department of Defense proposed a plan that would have resulted in a substantial number of Iraqis available to assist in the immediate postwar period." Had it been accepted, "we'd be in much better shape today," he said. Perle said blame for any planning failures belonged to the State Department and other agencies that opposed the Chalabi route.
A senior administration official, who requested anonymity, said the Pentagon officials were enamored of Chalabi because he advocated normal diplomatic relations with Israel. They believed that would have "taken off the board" one of the only remaining major Arab threats to Israeli security.
Moreover, Chalabi was key to containing the influence of Iran's radical Islamic leaders in the region, because he would have provided bases in Iraq for U.S. troops. That would complete Iran's encirclement by American military forces around the Persian Gulf and U.S. friends in Russia and Central Asia, he said.
But the failure to consult more widely on what to do if the Chalabi scenario failed denied American planners the benefits of a vast reservoir of expertise gained from peacekeeping and reconstruction in shattered nations from Bosnia to East Timor.
As one example, the Pentagon planners ignored an eight-month-long effort led by the State Department to prepare for the day when Saddam's dictatorship was gone. The "Future of Iraq" project, which involved dozens of exiled Iraqi professionals and 17 U.S. agencies, including the Pentagon, prepared strategies for everything from drawing up a new Iraqi judicial code to restoring the unique ecosystem of Iraq's southern marshes, which Saddam's regime had drained.
Virtually none of the "Future of Iraq" project's work was used once Saddam fell.
The first U.S. administrator in Iraq, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, wanted the Future of Iraq project director, Tom Warrick, to join his staff in Baghdad. Warrick had begun packing his bags, but Pentagon civilians vetoed his appointment, said one current and one former official.
Meanwhile, postwar planning documents from the State Department, CIA and elsewhere were "simply disappearing down the black hole" at the Pentagon, said a former U.S. official with long Middle East experience who recently returned from Iraq.
Archaeological experts who were worried about protecting Iraq's immense cultural treasures were rebuffed in their requests for meetings before the war. After it, Iraq's museum treasures were looted.
Responsibility for preparing for post-Saddam Iraq lay with senior officials who supervised the Office of Special Plans, a highly secretive group of analysts and consultants in the Pentagon's Near East/South Asia bureau. The office was physically isolated from the rest of the bureau. Air Force Lt. Col. Karen Kwiatkowski, who retired from the Near East bureau on July 1, said she and her colleagues were allowed little contact with the Office of Special Plans and often were told by the officials who ran it to ignore the State Department's concerns and views.
"We almost disemboweled State," Kwiatkowski said.
Senior State Department and White House officials verified her account and cited many instances where officials from other agencies were excluded from meetings or decisions.
The Chalabi plan, fiercely opposed by the CIA and the State Department, ran into major problems.
President Bush, after meeting with Iraqi exiles in January, told aides that, while he admired the Iraqi exiles, they wouldn't be rewarded with power in Baghdad. "The future of this country . . . is not going to be charted by people who sat out the sonofabitch (Saddam) in London or Cambridge, Massachusetts," one former senior White House official quoted Bush as saying.
After that, the White House quashed the Pentagon's plan to create _ before the war started - an Iraqi-government-in-exile that included Chalabi.
The Chalabi scheme was dealt another major blow in February, a month before the war started, when U.S. intelligence agencies monitored him conferring with hard-line Islamic leaders in Tehran, Iran, a State Department official said. About the same time, an Iraqi Shiite militia that was based in Iran and known as the Badr Brigade began moving into northern Iraq, setting off alarm bells in Washington.
At the State Department, officials drafted a memo, titled "The Perfect Storm," warning of a confluence of catastrophic developments that would endanger the goals of the coming U.S. invasion. Cheney, once a strong Chalabi backer, ordered the Pentagon to curb its support for the exiles, the official said.
Yet Chalabi continued to receive Pentagon assistance, including backing for a 700-man paramilitary unit. The U.S. military flew Chalabi and his men at the height of the war from the safety of northern Iraq, which was outside Saddam's control, to an air base outside the southern city of Nasiriyah in expectation that he would soon take power.
Chalabi settled into a former hunting club in the fashionable Mansour section of Baghdad. He was joined by Harold Rhode, a top Feith aide, said the former U.S. official who recently returned from Iraq.
But Chalabi lacked popular support - graffiti in Iraq referred to "Ahmad the Thief" - and anti-American anger was growing over the looting and anarchy that followed Saddam's ouster.
"It was very clear that there was an expectation that the exiles would be the core of an Iraqi interim (governing) authority," retired U.S. Ambassador Timothy Carney said. He was in Iraq in April to help with postwar reconstruction.
Once Saddam's regime fell, American authorities "quickly grasped" that Chalabi and his people couldn't take charge, Carney said.
However, the Pentagon had devised no backup plan. Numerous officials in positions to know said that if Pentagon civilians had a detailed plan that anticipated what could happen after Saddam fell, it was invisible to them.
Garner's team didn't even have such basics as working cell phones and adequate transportation. And Garner was replaced in May - much earlier than planned - by L. Paul Bremer. In his e-mail response to questions, Feith denied that officials in his office were instructed to ignore the concerns of other agencies and departments. He contended that in planning for Iraq, there was a "robust interagency process," led by the National Security Council staff at the White House.
Feith repeated a theme that he struck in a speech Tuesday in Washington, when he said planners prepared for "a long list of problems" that never happened, including destruction of oil fields, Saddam's use of chemical and biological weapons, food shortages, a collapse of the Iraqi currency and large-scale refugee flows. "Instead, we are facing some of the problems brought on by our very success in the war," he said.
Feith rejected criticisms that the Pentagon should have used more troops to invade Iraq. That might have prevented postwar looting, he said, but U.S. military commanders would have lost tactical surprise by waiting for extra troops, and thus "might have had the other terrible problems that we anticipated."
"War, like life in general, always involves trade-offs," Feith said. "It is not right to assume that any current problems in Iraq can be attributed to poor planning."
Other officials, while critical of the Pentagon, say it is unfair to lay sole blame on civilians such as Feith who are working under Rumsfeld. The former senior White House official said Rice and her deputy, Stephen Hadley, never took the logical - if politically risky - step of acknowledging that American troops would have to occupy Iraq for years to stabilize and rebuild the country.
"You let him (Bush) go into this without a serious plan . . . for the endgame," the official said. It was "staggeringly negligent on their part."
Still, the Defense Department was in charge of day-to-day postwar planning. And the problems were numerous, the current and former officials said. Key allies with a huge stake in Iraq's future were often left uninformed of the details of U.S. postwar planning.
For example, the government of Turkey, which borders Iraq to the north and was being asked by Washington to allow 60,000 American troops to invade Iraq from its soil, peppered the U.S. government with 51 questions about postwar plans.
The reply came in a cable Feb. 5, more than 10 pages long, from the State Department. Largely drafted by the Pentagon, it answered many of Ankara's queries, but on some questions, including the structure of the postwar government in Iraq, the cable affirmed that "no decision has been made," a senior administration official said. The response was "still in work, still in work . . . we're still working on that," Kwiatkowski said. "Basically an empty answer."
(Renee Schoof and researcher Tish Wells contributed to this article.)