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Ex-general overseeing Iraq reconstruction assails critics

BAGHDAD, Iraq—The retired general hired to get Iraq back on its feet lashed out at congressional critics on Saturday, calling their attack on the post-war reconstruction effort "offensive."

"The people back in Washington don't know what they're talking about," retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner said in a short interview with Knight Ridder Newspapers. "Frankly, I find it a little offensive."

Garner and the nation-building effort have come under intense fire in recent weeks both here and in the United States as the Pentagon has struggled to bring a sense of normalcy to Iraq.

While the military has won widespread praise for its swift battlefield victory, it has faced tough questioning for failing to quickly contain widespread post-war looting that then gave way to a murderous crime wave.

Garner himself came under fire for not taking more aggressive steps to establish law and order.

In an effort to regain control of the situation, President Bush ordered diplomat L. Paul Bremer III to the region earlier this month to oversee the reconstruction effort. While Bremer praised Garner for his work, the retired general is expected to step aside in the coming weeks.

Congressional critics from both parties vented their frustration with conditions in Iraq at a Senate Foreign Relations Committee hearing on Thursday.

Sen. Richard Lugar, an Indiana Republican who heads the committee, called the administration's effort "inadequate." Democrats were harsher, accusing the administration of implementing "a half-baked plan for reconstruction" that masks the true costs of rebuilding Iraq.

In response, Garner ticked off a list of accomplishments Saturday that he said his team had produced in the five weeks it has been on the ground. He said: Two-thirds of Iraqi children are back in school, 80 percent of the police forces are back at work, elections of town councils have been held in 17 major cities, and there are plans to buy the next harvest.

"For anyone who thinks things are going badly, I offer them a chance to work here," he said.

The general's comments underscore a persistent schism between upbeat American officials running the country and Iraqi citizens, especially in Baghdad, who constantly complain about the shortcomings.

Iraqis across the political spectrum have been frustrated by a seemingly endless series of post-war problems. Violent crime nearly paralyzed Baghdad and forced the United States to place thousands of extra soldiers on the streets. Schools may be open, but many parents in the capital are still scared to send their children to class. Policemen may be reporting for duty, but reconstruction officials are still struggling to get their looted stations back in working order.

Plans to create an interim Iraqi government have been delayed, infuriating Iraqi political groups eager to take control of their nation. While some parts of the nation are getting more power than before the war, many parts of Baghdad get no more than two hours of electricity a day. Long fuel lines for cars and kitchens are now routine sights.

As if to underscore the challenges, gunfire—a common sound across Baghdad after dark that the United States is soon planning to ban—could be heard nearby minutes after Garner drove away.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Ron Hutcheson in Washington also contributed to this report.)

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

ARCHIVE PHOTOS on KRT Direct (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): jay+garner

ARCHIVE CARICATURE on KRT Direct (from KRT Faces in the News Library, 202-383-6064): jay+garner

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