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Civilian Team Poised to Move In, Rebuild Iraq

U.S. specialists are to take over key institutions after troops secure them. Scores of Iraqi exiles are recruited to help in the effort.

March 19, 2003|Mark Fineman and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Twelve years ago, as a U.S. Marine Humvee blasted Guns N' Roses, the American flag was lowered in liberated Iraqi Kurdistan. Hundreds of Kurds gathered to bid farewell to U.S. Army general Jay Garner, the last American officer out of Iraq.

"Thank you," declared a banner in the crowd, "but the job is only half done."

On Monday, Garner came back to finish it, arriving in Kuwait as head of a little-known, Pentagon-run civilian force positioning itself to take over and rebuild Iraq.

By Thursday, three dozen U.S. civilian Agency for International Development disaster-relief specialists will be deployed with U.S. military units in Kuwait and Jordan, prepared to take over key institutions the moment soldiers secure them.

Scores of Iraqi exiles -- shop owners, schoolteachers and former military men will also travel with U.S. troops. They have been recruited from America and Europe by the Defense Department and trained for four weeks in civilian-military operations, relief work and small-arms fire at a secretive base in Taszar, Hungary.

Dozens of U.S. civilians and retired military operatives are en route to execute the elaborate plan, which includes taking over Iraq's vital institutions, safeguarding the lives of up to 1 million refugees and feeding and educating the rest. In short, they will serve as a de facto interim government, along with hundreds -- perhaps thousands -- of additional U.S.-trained Iraqi exiles who will follow in the weeks ahead.

The plan has been quietly taking shape for at least six months. But only in recent weeks have the Pentagon, State Department and other federal agencies assembled key elements of what they expect will be Iraq's interim government if Saddam Hussein and his Baath Socialist Party are driven from power, according to documents and officials in Washington.

"This is unique in our history," said Bernd McConnell, who heads AID's Office of Foreign Disaster Assistance. Never before, he said, has an AID disaster-response team aligned itself so closely to the U.S. military.

"We're going to make no bones about it," McConnell said. "We're relying on the military for that security that is necessary for us to do our jobs."

AID administrator Andrew S. Natsios insisted that his employees will report directly to him and not to the military.

U.S. AID already has solicited bids from private American companies for hundreds of millions of dollars to rebuild and run Iraq's roads, ports, airports, schools, hospitals and water and sewer systems.

Separately, the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers is seeking bids from American contractors to reconstruct and run Iraq's lucrative oil industry.

38 Years in Army

The man with command responsibility for it all is Garner, 64, a diminutive, impetuous yet determined veteran of 38 years in the Army and of the 1991 Persian Gulf War.

Garner, who was instrumental in creating the Kurds' haven in northern Iraq as a major general 12 years ago, has given no on-the-record interviews since he was appointed head of the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which President Bush created in a Jan. 20 directive.

Shrouded in secrecy, the military side of the planning has met with little outside scrutiny.

The few private aid organizations that have been briefed worry that America's government and corporate dominance could inflame Iraqi nationalism.

Privately, U.N. officials and foreign aid groups are concerned that, with America's failed diplomatic efforts to win international approval for a war, the U.S. will shun its opponents in war's aftermath.

But senior Defense Department and AID officials insist that all international organizations will have a major role.

Plan Rehearsed

"Our time frame in-country is to get in there as soon as we can and begin this work, and end it as fast as possible, but at the same time returning to the Iraqi people a set of things that weren't as good when we got them and are better now," said a senior Pentagon official involved in the planning.

Garner's group spent two days at the National Defense University at Washington's Ft. McNair rehearsing the plan in "a post-Saddam environment in Iraq" last month. And the Pentagon has produced an intricate flow chart that outlines the shape of the U.S. interim administration.

Garner will head it as an "interim civil administrator," reporting directly to Army Gen. Tommy Franks, who is leading the planned military assault on Iraq.

Below Garner is a veteran U.S. AID official who will serve as reconstruction coordinator, a retired general who will be civil administration coordinator and a former U.S. ambassador who will be humanitarian assistance coordinator.

Underscoring Garner's attempt to cast his operation as a civilian one, senior defense officials said he has even told co-workers who addressed him by his rank to "Call me Jay."

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