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WAR WITH IRAQ / POLICY

White House Divided Over Reconstruction

April 02, 2003|Robin Wright | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The Bush administration is deeply riven by disputes over postwar Iraq, particularly on three key issues -- the role of the United Nations, who will lead the country and which elements of the U.S. government will oversee its reconstruction, administration officials say.

The fight, those involved say, is about whether Iraq is transformed through an international effort under U.N. supervision, as the State Department prefers, or through a process designed and controlled largely by the United States and designated Iraqis, as the Pentagon prefers.

So far, the Pentagon's approach is prevailing, producing intense squabbling both in Washington and at the Hilton Hotel in Kuwait, where many U.S. officials are drafting plans and preparing to head to Baghdad when the war ends.

At a meeting scheduled Thursday in Brussels, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plans to tell his European and NATO counterparts that the Bush administration wants United Nations assistance with humanitarian and reconstruction projects, and possibly a stabilization force, but seeks no help in re-creating Iraq politically, U.S. officials said. The Pentagon has championed this approach.

"His message is: There's still a role for the world to play, but there are limits to what's possible under this administration. There's room for a U.N. role, but not U.N. rule," said a well-placed U.S. official, who disagrees with this approach.

"We're on the verge of further alienating allies," said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "And it looks like we're going to do exactly what we promised we wouldn't -- take small groups of exiles with limited influence in Iraq and bring them in as the bulk of a transition government."

Decisions being made now, U.S. officials said, could have an impact well beyond Iraq's borders and long after the U.S. finishes both its military and political missions in Iraq. They could affect everything from the extent of global cooperation the United States can expect in tackling security threats to U.S. alliances in the region.

"What was supposed to go the smoothest is proving to be the hardest part. Some of our worst fears about the postwar period are already coming true," said a senior administration official.

A Pentagon official insisted Tuesday that reports of interagency friction "are just exaggerated," adding that "there's a lot of people from a lot of different agencies that are working to fulfill the goal of providing necessary humanitarian support for the Iraqi people after the fall of the Iraqi regime."

The United States' insistence on a limited role for the United Nations could deepen tensions with key allies, who would prefer that the U.N. oversee the political transition to a democratically elected government in Baghdad. The allies also may be reluctant to provide funding for postwar Iraq if they have limited say in the decision-making process, U.S. officials conceded.

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington's main ally in the war, stressed during talks in Washington last week the importance of turning over the administration of Iraq to the United Nations. Blair sees the move as critical to winning support from donor nations and to preventing a political backlash and new terrorism from an increasingly angry Arab world, U.S. and British officials say.

Congressional leaders also are warning the White House against going it alone.

By failing to engage the United Nations after the war, the United States would "miss an opportunity" to repair damage to the world body and to important U.S. alliances needed for the war on terrorism and other issues, said Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

"By gaining U.N. approval, we would help political leaders around the world whose people oppose the war justify their participation -- including financial participation -- in building the peace," he said on the Senate floor last week.

On new postwar Iraqi leadership, the Pentagon is now making decisions that could virtually ensure that Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi National Congress leader who fled Iraq in 1958, becomes the transitional leader after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials say.

"Chalabi is the Pentagon's guy, and the Pentagon is in charge," an administration official said.

Pentagon strategists want to see a known ally in power in Iraq as part of an ambitious regional reshuffling of alliances, with Iraq emerging as a pillar of U.S. policy in the region, the officials added.

Chalabi, a U.S.-educated former banker, is a charismatic Shiite Muslim but also a divisive figure with a checkered past. He was tried and convicted in absentia in Jordan for bank fraud and senior Arab officials say he would not be welcome in several Middle East countries.

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