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U S. seems to be `winging it' on what's next for Iraq

WASHINGTON—The chaos and looting that have spread across Iraq have put U.S. postwar plans under a harsh spotlight, raising questions about whether the Bush administration is moving fast enough to fill the power vacuum left by Saddam Hussein's fall.

The rapid collapse of the regime this week appeared to have caught the United States by surprise, running well ahead of plans to provide security, emergency aid, reconstruction and eventually a new government.

Key decisions remain unmade, senior U.S. officials say, including the precise role of the United Nations in postwar Iraq and what, if any, peacekeeping force will be sent to pacify the country.

"For all the planning that went into this thing, they seem to be winging much of it," said Joel Charny, vice president of Refugees International, an advocacy organization that's one of many groups calling on the United States to do more to ensure security so humanitarian aid can be delivered.

The Bush administration has proceeded cautiously in part because it is leery of taking aggressive actions that would look like an American occupation.

Top officials also appear convinced that the looting and disorder are a result of Iraqis' frustrations after decades of living under a police state, and will soon dissipate.

"Freedom's untidy," Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Friday.

Under the Geneva Conventions, the United States and Britain, as "occupying powers," are responsible for ensuring the operation of schools and hospitals and facilitating relief supplies.

The International Committee of the Red Cross on Friday called on American and British forces to protect Iraq's civilian population and infrastructure. It said Baghdad's medical system "has virtually collapsed."

U.S. commanders have been unwilling to have American troops assume broad police functions, citing the ongoing combat, among other factors.

But Charny said, "We can spare soldiers to topple statues . . . but we can't spare 10 soldiers to stand in the door of a hospital and prevent people from looting."

The State Department said Friday that 26 U.S. police and judicial officials were heading to Iraq as advisers, part of the reconstruction effort led by retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner.

An additional 150 people will be sent under a U.S. government contract with DynCorp, and the supplemental spending bill before Congress would fund 1,000 more, department spokesman Richard Boucher said.

The State Department has requested help from around the world for police, peackeeping and reconstruction, and says it has received 58 positive responses.

Canada, for example, has offered members of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police. The Philippines has offered a 500-person contingent.

But many nations are holding off until the "combat phase" is over, a State Department official said. "We're still trying to figure out exactly what it is that's going to be needed," said the official, speaking on condition of anonymity.

The same goes for a potential peacekeeping force.

Secretary of State Colin Powell said in an interview with a Dutch television station Thursday that "we're going to need armed forces to do some peacekeeping for a while. We don't know how many yet or where they will be located."

Decisions on the size and nature of the force are up to Gen. Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, and Garner, said a senior administration official, who also asked not to be named. They haven't yet presented a plan that the State Department can take to other countries, the official said.

The Bush administration announced Friday that U.S. officials will convene a meeting Tuesday of potential Iraqi leaders in the Iraqi city of Nasiriyah. It will be attended by U.S. envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and include both Iraqis who remained under Saddam's rule and those who went into exile.

The senior administration official, in an interview, said the conclave would be the first of several "town meetings" across Iraq "to have them (Iraqis) start thinking about how to start setting up an interim authority." That interim authority would administer Iraq with U.S. support until elections are held.

The key question is "How do we now marry the free Iraqis from outside Iraq and the relatively free Iraqis from inside Iraq?" the official said.

The administration hopes to turn some authority back to Iraqis as quickly as possible.

Some ministries—for example, agriculture and health—could be turned over to full Iraqi control rapidly. Others, such as the information and defense ministries, would take longer to purge of officials from Saddam's Baath Party, the official said.

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

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