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Bremer's request more personnel highlights concerns about Iraq timetable

WASHINGTON—President Bush's top envoy in Iraq has told Washington that he wants as many as 1,000 additional personnel to beef up the U.S. occupation authority amid growing concern that the effort to return Iraqi sovereignty by next summer is falling far behind schedule.

The recent request by L. Paul Bremer, which is being fiercely debated by the president's aides, underscores growing alarm in some sectors of the government that Bush's exit strategy for Iraq is in trouble.

It's been plagued by a political stalemate among Iraqis over how to choose a new government, delays in assembling an Iraqi security force, shortfalls in communication and other problems.

Under the accelerated timetable agreed to last month by Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority and Iraqi leaders, an interim Iraqi parliament is supposed to be in place by May 31. It is to select an interim government by June 30, formally ending the U.S. occupation.

"Clearly, CPA is behind schedule on the accelerated timeline for handing over to the Iraqis," said one senior official.

"Jerry Bremer has put us on standby, warning that he is going to need 1,000 additional people. We are waiting to hear precisely what he needs," the official said.

He and others spoke on condition of anonymity because the request hasn't been made public and is the subject of intense debate, and because the administration's public posture is more optimistic.

Another top official said Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld is resisting Bremer's request, arguing that the CPA should be slimming down, not beefing up, in anticipation of the sovereignty handover.

"Rummy tells me downgrade, and I need more," a State Department official quoted Bremer as telling Secretary of State Colin Powell in recent weeks.

Bremer has asked for experts in running elections and finance, as well as people with expertise in telecommunications, this official said.

White House press officials declined to comment, referring phone calls to the Pentagon. A Pentagon spokesman didn't return a call for comment.

Senior officials said Bremer fears he doesn't have enough U.S. personnel in Iraqi government ministries and its 18 provinces, known as governates, to accomplish a smooth transfer of power.

That transfer is key to Bush's hopes of eventually withdrawing many of the 130,000 U.S. troops in Iraq and leaving behind a stable country.

A request for 1,000 additional personnel would effectively double the size of the CPA.

Bremer and others believe additional personnel are especially needed in the governates to help organize as many as 108 caucuses that are to select members of the interim Iraqi parliament.

Bremer's plans to return power back to Iraqis have run into a major political roadblock.

The leading religious figure among Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, Grand Ayatollah Ali Husseini al Sistani, has insisted on direct elections to choose members of the interim parliament.

Bremer and many other U.S. officials believe that Iraq isn't ready for elections because there isn't time to develop accurate voter rolls and because of the possibility of fraud or violence.

Bremer and the advisory Iraqi Governing Council are exploring compromises, such as elections in some parts of Baghdad and other cities. But some officials fear that, with the deadline looming, Sistani and others will be able to hold out and force the United States to cave.

U.S. officials, including some in the CPA, privately concede that Bremer and his aides have made three crucial errors, including failing to reach out earlier to Sistani.

The other errors are the disbanding last summer of the entire Iraqi army and failing thus far to bring the Sunnis into the political process.

A recent unclassified assessment obtained by Knight Ridder cited numerous problems with the planning for the handover, particularly with strategic communications.

The assessment questioned whether Iraqi security bodies, such as police, border enforcement and customs, could be staffed up and integrated in time for the handover.

It remains unclear where additional U.S. government personnel would come from.

The Defense and State departments have wrangled since the fall of Baghdad in April over sending personnel to Iraq.

The State Department official said Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith, the Pentagon's No. 3 official, is continuing to block some people on a list submitted by State for deployment to Baghdad.

Security concerns and lack of housing have slowed the fielding of U.S. diplomats and other civilian personnel to Iraq.

Another official expressed concerns over whether Bremer's request could be met.

"We don't have 1,000 people who have any experience in that part of the world," the official said.


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