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Humanitarian groups unhappy with Pentagon's relief efforts

WASHINGTON—A bitter, even acrimonious, debate within the Bush administration over how to assist Iraq after fighting dies down took a new twist Wednesday as the nation's largest humanitarian groups complained about the Pentagon's role in overseeing relief efforts.

The relief groups said their workers risk becoming targets of reprisal if they toil under the control of the Pentagon, and grumbled that their advice on humanitarian efforts has been ignored.

New signs emerged, meanwhile, that hawks within the Bush administration are pushing for a major role for Ahmed Chalabi, controversial head of the Iraqi National Congress, in an interim government after Saddam Hussein is toppled. The INC is a long-feuding coalition of Iraqi exiles with shallow popular support inside Iraq.

Chalabi is a lightning rod figure, even in Washington. Some at the CIA and State Department mistrust him, while officials under Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld praise him for his pro-Western views.

Two Iraqi National Congress officials are now assigned to U.S. Central Command forward headquarters in Qatar, in the Persian Gulf. Also, U.S. officials are planning to send an INC functionary into the southern Iraqi city of Basra as soon as possible to provide a pro-Western Iraqi voice on events unfolding there, said U.S. and Iraqi opposition officials.

With the war grinding into a third week, inter-agency wrangling over Chalabi and public debate over relief efforts underscored the secrecy shrouding much of the administration's post-war strategy. President Bush has said Iraqi civilians will control their country once the war ends, but he has not outlined publicly how the transition will occur.

In an unusually strongly worded statement, relief groups in the United States demanded that the White House yank the Pentagon from its role of overseeing humanitarian relief efforts.

The 160 groups, under the umbrella alliance known as InterAction, urged all relief efforts to be given to the State Department and the U.S. Agency for International Development.

"The Department of Defense's efforts to marginalize the State Department and force non-governmental organizations to operate under (Pentagon) jurisdiction complicates our ability to help the Iraqi people and multiplies the dangers faced by relief workers in the field," InterAction head Mary E. McClymont said.

InterAction represents some of the most well-known humanitarian groups in the United States, including the American Red Cross, CARE, Save the Children, Oxfam America, Catholic Relief Services and Lutheran World Relief. They say they can funnel tens of millions of dollars in medical, food and other assistance to Iraqis once fighting dies down.

"The international humanitarian aid community has been kept at arm's length. And it's a mistake," said Curtis R. Welling, president and chief executive of the AmeriCares Foundation of New Canaan, Conn.

Other humanitarian officials said relief efforts couldn't begin fully until soldiers halt fighting. But they added that relief organizations should not be linked to, or controlled by, the Pentagon.

"If you are siding with one military, you are against the other. That makes it very dangerous," said Sid Balman Jr., a spokesman for InterAction, which has its headquarters in Washington.

The lead administration official on relief, Andrew Natsios, head of the U.S. Agency for International Development, denied that the Pentagon controls relief efforts.

Natsios said he and Secretary of State Colin Powell oversee U.S. relief efforts, and not retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, the head of the Pentagon's newly created Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Garner supervises scores of officials from a temporary office at the Hilton Hotel in Kuwait City, and is reportedly set to place dozens of Iraqi exiles in key interim government posts.

"The (relief) team reports to me and I report to Colin Powell. That is as it is now," Natsios said.

Natsios said no major humanitarian crises have yet developed from the war.

"There are pockets of humanitarian need in Iraq, but we are not facing a massive humanitarian crisis," he said at a news conference.

The Bush administration is donating an additional $200 million to the World Food Program, bringing total relief allotments to $731 million, Natsios said.

Refugee flows within Iraq have been surprisingly minimal, another official said.

"Movements to date have been insignificant, except for some 300,000 moving in with friends and families in the north, not moving out of Iraq," said Arthur E. Dewey, the assistant secretary of state for populations, refugees and migration issues.

As Natsios sought to mark out his turf, Garner could not be reached for comment. Garner is among those at the Pentagon pushing for a major post-war role for Chalabi, an MIT graduate who left Iraq in 1956 and has lived in London in recent years.

Critics say Chalabi has lived outside Iraq too long to gain the trust of his countrymen.

"There is a feeling among many people in our government that it will take a mixture of people to form an Iraqi regime. Many of them will have to come from the inside to have credibility," said a senior U.S. official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

Even a longtime friend of Chalabi said he would face difficulties in Iraq.

"He's a good chap, well educated and very capable," said Mohamed al Jabiri, an Iraqi exile lawyer based in Sydney, Australia. "But he has no roots back in Iraq."


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jonathan S. Landay in northern Iraq contributed to this report.)


(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.