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Advance team begins forming postwar Iraqi government

KUWAIT CITY, Kuwait—With U.S. troops raiding central Baghdad and British forces in control of Basra, the United States will begin Tuesday setting up an interim administration for governing a postwar Iraq.

Retired American Lt. Gen. Buck Walters is expected to arrive at the port city of Umm Qasr, just north of the Kuwaiti border, to establish the southern branch of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Aid (ORHA). To follow: 280 Washington bureaucrats, Pentagon staffers, aid workers, private contractors and coalition representatives headed by retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner.

About 15 people will accompany Walters into Umm Qasr, said Garner's spokesman, Capt. Nathan Jones. "Their first mission will be humanitarian assistance," he said. "We'll be asking the Iraqis what we can do to help them."

Eventually, ORHA is expected to have three regional headquarters, in Basra in the south, Baghdad in the center of the country and Mosul in the north.

The group has been planning its administration of a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq for weeks at a luxury resort hotel outside Kuwait City. But little has leaked out about its plans other than that there will be three "pillars" of responsibility: humanitarian assistance, reconstruction and civil administration.

That lack of detail is caused in part by a continuing disagreement between the United States and Great Britain over the role of the United Nations in Iraq, and by a running battle between the Department of Defense and the State Department over who will run major components of the government.

President Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair are expected to discuss the U.N. role in postwar Iraq during their meeting Tuesday in Northern Ireland.

The bigger battle is within the Bush administration.

Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld and his civilian aides, along with officials in Vice President Dick Cheney's office, wanted to appoint an expatriate Iraqi businessman, Ahmed Chalabi, as the leader of a post-Saddam government. Rumsfeld denied on Monday that he had spoken in Chalabi's behalf, but others familiar with the discussions here said it is clear that Rumsfeld favors a major role for Chalabi.

The Defense Department on Sunday flew Chalabi and hundreds of anti-Saddam Iraqis to the southern Iraqi of Nasiriyah to help keep order. On Monday, U.S. Marines handed out light weapons to these self-styled "1st Battalion of Free Iraqi Forces." U.S. officers said the guns, enough for 1,000 fighters, are to be used for self-protection, and that the U.S.-trained Iraqis aren't expected to battle Saddam loyalists.

Officials at the State Department and the CIA argue that Chalabi has little or no legitimacy inside Iraq—especially since U.S. forces are setting him up in Nasariyah—and an uncertain commitment to democracy. They prefer a more complex and difficult path of letting Iraqis in Iraq choose their leaders.

"The big ideological fight is what the (ORHA) transitions into," a U.S. official said, speaking on condition of anonymity. "And the `what' is the `who.'"

Chalabi, a Shiite Muslim born in 1945 to a wealthy banking family, is the leader of the Iraqi National Congress (INC), umbrella opposition movement. He left Iraq in 1956 and has lived in the United States and London ever since, except for a period in the mid-1990s when he tried to organize an ill-fated uprising in Kurdish-controlled northern Iraq.

A gifted lobbyist, he has been dogged by financial scandal, however. In 1992, he was sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to 22 years in prison for bank fraud after the 1990 collapse of a bank he founded more than a decade earlier. Chalabi maintained the case was a plot by Saddam to frame him. Internal inquiries at the State Department and the CIA have since raised questions about the Iraqi National Congress's accounting practices.

But Chalabi "says all the right things," a U.S. official here said: The INC would be willing to recognize Israel and be sympathetic to American business interests.

The role Chalabi and other expatriates might play "is like the elephant in the room—everybody is trying to avoid it for now," the official said. "But a lot of (the rift in the administration) is about what role they will play."

One group of Iraqis that won't play a part in a new government is Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

Coalition forces are hunting down Baath party members—Sunni Muslims that make up the core of Saddam's regime. A British spokesman called them a "pit of vipers" that must be eliminated if democracy is going to take hold.

"They've got to go," British spokesman Col. Chris Vernon said. "A lot of them will be killed (in combat). That's what we're doing. The regime has to go and they are its architects."

Planning for post-Saddam Iraq has been taking place in rows of identical stucco chalets and villas at the Kuwait Hilton Resort.

Dressed in khakis, Ray Bans and polo shirts and carrying Army-issue gas masks low on their hips, the architects of the new Iraq drive new Chevy Suburbans and conference with Washington through Halliburton satellite dishes perched atop identical carports.

The planners include representatives of the departments of State, Defense, Commerce, Treasury, and Justice as well as members of the Army Corps of Engineers. Also in the mix are private contractors, non-governmental aid agencies and representatives of coalition members.

The group is divided into threes, both geographically and professionally.

The geographic divisions are dedicated to governing the three regions of Iraq: north, central and south.

Maj. Gen. Bruce Moore will head the northern region. Walters, beginning Tuesday, will oversee the southern region. And veteran diplomat Barbara Bodine, most recently the U.S. ambassador to Yemen, will head the key central region.

The professional divisions are split into three "pillars" of responsibility: humanitarian assistance under former ambassador to Namibia George Ward; reconstruction under U.S. Agency for International Development official Lewis Lucke; and civil administration headed by attorney Michael Mobbs, a close political ally of Rumsfeld and former law partner of Assistant Defense Secretary Douglas Feith.

The civil administration pillar is the center of debate in Kuwait City and in Washington. That group will be responsible for determining how Iraq will be governed, from selecting who will run power plants to who will hire police officers to who will administer towns and villages.

According to those involved, the discussion revolves around how leaders will be selected: The State Department advocates Iraqis in Iraq somehow making the selections and the Defense Department advocates appointing Iraqi exiles to hold much of the power.

One team member complained that the ongoing rift is overshadowing the good work the Garner Group is preparing to do.

"This is an audacious foreign policy, but if it works it shows that we (the United States) will go to bat for freedom," the team member said. "We'll put our might behind it and drag the rest of the world with us."


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