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Dispute within Bush administration threatens plans for Iraq

WASHINGTON—Even before they're done fighting Iraqi President Saddam Hussein's regime, U.S. officials are escalating their battle with one another over how to rule and rebuild his shattered country.

On Sunday, U.S. military helicopters airlifted controversial Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi and 700 of his men to southern Iraq, despite the strong objections of the State Department, according to several U.S. officials.

State Department officials and their counterparts at the CIA question both Chalabi's honesty and his countrymen's eagerness to welcome him home. A CIA report recently distributed to policy-makers says the London-based, U.S.-educated exile has little backing among the Iraqi people, according to officials who've read it.

The anti-Chalabi forces thought they'd quashed the Pentagon's efforts to give him a leg up last week, said the officials, who requested anonymity. President Bush, they said, had said the United States would not promote any potential Iraqi leader, but would let the Iraqi people decide.

"It was talked about, and they (civilian officials in the Defense Department) just did it anyway," one of the officials said.

The internal dispute over Chalabi's role in post-Saddam Iraq is only one problem that threatens to derail American efforts to help Iraq make a smooth transition from dictatorship to democracy.

Putting Iraq back together as a functioning nation also could hinge on reaching a broad international agreement about how to achieve that goal. France, Germany and Russia, all of whom opposed the war, are demanding that the United Nations control the process of reconstructing Iraq and appointing a new government—something the United States opposes. The rift could make it impossible to gain a consensus about Iraq's future in the U.N. Security Council.

"We are no longer in an era where one or two countries can control the fate of another country," said French President Jacques Chirac. "Therefore, the political, economic, humanitarian and administrative reconstruction of Iraq is a matter for the United Nations and for it alone."

Chirac plans to meet Friday in St. Petersburg, Russia, with Russian President Vladimir Putin and German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder.

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Bush's closest ally, is lobbying for a larger U.N. role.

Bush and Blair declared at their meeting in Northern Ireland on Tuesday that the United Nations should have a "vital role" in the reconstruction of Iraq.

But the two leaders' statement was vague. "The devil's in the details," said a State Department official.

If the United States and its allies don't quickly show Iraqis—and the world—that the new Iraq will be better than the old, the benefits of the war could quickly evaporate, U.S. officials and private experts fear.

"Put simply, the United States may lose the peace, even if it wins the war," said a recent report by the Council on Foreign Relations and Rice University's Baker Institute for Public Policy.

But from the southern Iraqi city of Basra, where residents have celebrated the regime's fall from power by looting, to diplomatic conference tables around the globe, there are conflicting visions of how to replace the only government most of Iraq's 25 million people have ever known.

While fighting continues in Baghdad and elsewhere, U.S. and British commanders have begun handing administrative power back to local Iraqis in several cities across the south.

Their aim is to return basic government functions, such as running utilities and doing police work, to Iraqis in liberated zones as quickly as possible, erasing the image of the foreign troops as occupiers.

In Basra, where citizens complained about a breakdown in order, British troops installed a local sheik, or tribal leader, and asked him to set up an administrative committee for the region, a British military spokesman said.

In the southern city of Samawah, commanders of the Army's 82nd Airborne Division did much the same with Hakim al Hukeen, a local sheik who just returned from 13 years of exile in neighboring Jordan.

"We are soldiers who came here to liberate this nation," U.S. Col. Arnold Bray told a gathering in Samawah. "We did not come to occupy. We're trying to figure out how to let the people of Iraq and this region resume control of what you built and Saddam destroyed."

But when a local anti-Saddam leader took control of the southeastern city of Amara last weekend, a CIA officer ordered him to withdraw. The militia leader, Abu Hatem Mohammed Ali, and his men had advanced too far and were in danger of being struck by coalition fire, said a U.S. intelligence official who spoke on condition of anonymity. The official denied Iraqi opposition claims that the order to withdraw was politically motivated.

As President Bush and his advisers debate how to stitch Iraq's local, religious and tribal power bases into a stable new national government, their efforts have been complicated by the struggle between the Pentagon and the State Department and CIA.

Chalabi's backers on Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld's civilian staff and in Vice President Dick Cheney's office are denouncing the report questioning their man's legitimacy as character defamation by the CIA, which has long been skeptical of Chalabi and his Iraqi National Congress (INC).

But others say it is a dispassionate and factual account of the drawbacks, not only of Chalabi but also of several former Iraqi officials who have been suggested for leadership positions. Some have questionable human rights records.

Chalabi and his men remained at an abandoned Iraqi air defense base near the southern city of Nasiriyah on Tuesday, in what some officials interpreted as a bid by the U.S. armed forces to keep them out of trouble.

"We are equipping and training them so that as they are employed in the liberation of their own country, (it is) done in a way that is safe and effective within the coalition," said Army Maj. Gen. Stanley McChrystal.


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