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Iraqi Officials Fault U.S. on Handoff

Both sides want responsibility for security back in local hands. Critics see the coalition authority as botching the transfer.

August 22, 2003|Carol J. Williams | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Facing escalating acts of sabotage and terrorism, U.S. and Iraqi officials insist that guarding borders, patrolling pipelines and policing ever meaner streets are security matters best handled by Iraq's own people.

Iraqi leaders are eager to see a restored army and police force that can maintain order, but they said they are increasingly frustrated by U.S. missteps that have endangered an already slow transition.

Key leaders said the Americans pay lip service to empowering Iraqis to put their house in order. They said the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority has disregarded crucial intelligence delivered by Iraqi partners and failed to provide sufficient funds, guns and uniforms to the new forces. The authority has made the job of restoring peace all the harder by excluding former Baath Party members who are innocent and willing to help look for Saddam Hussein and his henchmen, said members of the Iraqi Governing Council.

The aim of handing over day-to-day policing and defense to Iraqis became more urgent after Tuesday's attack on the U.N. headquarters in Baghdad. A truck packed with explosives was driven close to the entrance and detonated. U.N. special envoy Sergio Vieira de Mello was among those killed.

"Everyone knows the Americans are in charge of security, and if

Coalition failures to protect foreign facilities -- the Jordanian Embassy here was bombed two weeks ago -- or restore order in cities still beset by kidnappings, theft and looting, threaten to turn Iraqis against the U.S.-led occupiers, Tawfik said.

"I think they realize now that they need the Iraqis to help them establish security," he said, adding that Iraqis are much more attuned to what is going on in their neighborhoods than are foreign forces.

Anti-Hussein figures made that argument to U.S. officials even before the U.S. invasion, Tawfik said, warning that "toppling Saddam Hussein would be easy compared to governing Iraq in a security vacuum."

The U.S. civilian administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer III, told the fledgling Governing Council after the U.N. bombing that Iraqi security forces needed to be more visible, said a council official who was at the meeting.

Bremer's assertion that the Iraqis should take greater charge was unrealistic and disingenuous, said Ali Abdel-Amir of the Iraqi National Accord.

"He talks about it, without doing anything about it on the ground," Abdel-Amir said, adding that Iraqis fear the sudden haste by the U.S. to transfer responsibility for security. The occupation authorities have made major mistakes from which they are anxious to extricate themselves, he said, but the council is loath to be held responsible by a disgruntled public.

Bremer's decision to dismantle the Iraqi army, for example, left the country without even skeletal defenses, Abdel-Amir said.

Omar Bootani, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said that by banning upper-level members of Hussein's Baath Party, the coalition excluded many trained specialists and missed an opportunity to tap the inside knowledge of those who were only reluctantly aligned with the regime.

"They should have pronounced from the beginning a pardon of Baath Party members except the big figures and called on the rest to cooperate with coalition forces," Bootani said. "They should have paid all Iraqi military personnel except the criminal ones. The Americans could have used these people who were ready to cooperate."

Another council figure complained that U.S. forces don't trust their Iraqi partners enough to rely on them for anything more sophisticated than armed manpower and that calls for a swift transfer of security to Iraqi control were face-saving moves in the wake of the bombing.

The U.N. disaster might have been averted if U.S. forces had acted on intelligence relayed from Iraqi sources that terrorists were planning an attack on a civilian target or Iraqi political parties, one council official charged.

In Washington, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld dismissed as "not true" reports that the U.S. was warned of an impending attack like the one on the U.N. headquarters.

Coalition officials tried to downplay the differences, insisting the authority and its Iraqi allies were largely in agreement and making progress.

"They're saying they want to take more responsibility, and they are taking more responsibility. I don't think there's a problem," said Charles Heatley, a coalition spokesman. There are legal questions to be sorted out, as well as a process for creating an Iraqi government to oversee internal affairs, including security, he said.

"What we can't do is set up an enormous Iraqi armed forces overnight," Heatley said. "You can't just grab someone, put an AK-47 in his hands and send him out in the street and say you've got security."

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