WASHINGTON—The Pentagon is planning to give a major role in a future Iraqi government to controversial exile opposition figure Ahmed Chalabi and members of his Iraqi National Congress, according to Bush administration officials.
The move has sparked a new round of bitter feuding within the U.S. government over the shape of any post-Saddam authority in Baghdad, even as American and British troops battle in Iraq to oust Saddam's regime, the officials said.
The Pentagon's No. 3 official, Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, has drafted a list of Iraqis who would hold key positions in an interim Iraqi government, according to two U.S. officials with long experience in Iraqi affairs.
Under the scheme, half the posts to govern Iraq's 18 provinces would be given to the Iraqi National Congress, or INC, a long-feuding coalition of Iraqi exiles now operating out of Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq, said the officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
Chalabi is widely given credit for keeping the cause of overthrowing Saddam's dictatorship alive through more than a decade of ups and downs. He is deeply distrusted by the State Department, CIA and the uniformed military services, who say he has little support within Iraq and little chance of being accepted by the country's 25 million people.
"As best we can tell, there is nobody in the Iraqi armed forces who knows or likes" Chalabi, said Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House specialist on Iraq.
Installing him in power could foment tensions with U.S. military administrators and with the Iraqi army, which is expected to remain a significant political power even after Saddam is gone, Pollack said.
Chalabi, a former banker, was convicted in absentia in Jordan of embezzlement. The CIA severed its relationship with the INC after it was unable to account for millions of dollars in covert U.S. aid.
Another Iraqi who may figure in U.S. post-war plans is retired Iraqi Gen. Nizar al Khazraji, believed to be the highest ranking military figure to defect under Saddam.
Khazraji, who had been charged in Denmark with war crimes relating to Iraq's use of chemical weapons against the Kurds in the 1980s, disappeared last week. Several U.S. officials said he is believed to be in the Persian Gulf, working with U.S. forces.
Khazraji has denied the war crimes charges, and his defenders say he played no direct role in the chemical attacks, which were ordered by Saddam's cousin, Ali Hassan al Majid.
The dispute over Chalabi and the INC underlines how bureaucratic warfare over who will run Iraq, which has raged for months, has not been settled even at this relatively late date.
How to govern Iraq after Saddam and what role to give the United Nations are expected to dominate President Bush's discussions with British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David on Thursday.
Blair is pushing for a new U.N. resolution authorizing a civil administration in Iraq, in part to bring France and Germany, which opposed the war, into a coalition to rebuild Iraq. The United States, however, wants to minimize the United Nations' role.
Secretary of State Colin Powell told a House committee Wednesday that Washington will not cede control of Iraq to the world body.
"We didn't take on this huge burden with our coalition partners not to be able to have a significant dominating control over how it unfolds in the future," Powell said.
Assuming Saddam's downfall, the U.S. military is planning to administer Iraq but to turn control of many day-to-day functions over to an Iraqi interim authority within 60 or 90 days.
The Feith plan appears to run counter to a decision made by the White House roughly a month ago, said the current and former U.S. officials, who spoke on condition of anonymity.
That ruling said the United States would not support the creation of an Iraqi government-in-exile and would draw from the broadest possible pool of Iraqis, both expatriates and those who have remained under Saddam's rule, to staff a future government.
The concern is that a government of expatriates installed by the United States would have little legitimacy either with the Iraqi people or internationally.
In a report issued Tuesday, the Brussels-based International Crisis Group warned against either a U.S. military occupation government or an interim administration made up primarily of exiled opposition leaders who have been outside the country for years.
"It would be a mistake to short-circuit the domestic political contest by prematurely picking a winner," wrote Robert Malley, the group's Middle East program director. "Under either of these scenarios, the bulk of Iraqis inside Iraq, Sunni and Shi'ite, Arab, Kurd and others, who have been brutally disenfranchised for over three decades, would remain voiceless."
The exile opposition's supporters have floated a new argument in recent days. The fierce resistance and guerrilla tactics used by Iraqis against U.S. and British forces show, they say, that it would be impossible to tell "good" and "bad" Iraqis apart after the shooting stops.
Retired Army Gen. Jay Garner, who runs the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, will oversee the rebuilding of Iraq.
Garner, who recently moved his headquarters to Kuwait, has been recruiting a wide range of Iraqi exiles to assist in the effort, some of whom trained under a special State Department project.
He will be assisted by several senior U.S. diplomats, including Barbara Bodine, the former U.S. ambassador to Yemen. Bodine is expected to be the top American diplomat in Baghdad until a U.S. Embassy is re-established there.
Garner signed a letter in October 2000 praising Israel's "remarkable restraint" in responding to a violent Palestinian revolt that broke out the month before. By siding with Israel in the conflict, Garner could have problems administering a major Arab country that supports the Palestinians.
The 2000 letter was organized by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, a staunchly pro-Israel group based in Washington.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.