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In Iraq Debate, Bremer Comes Out a Winner

Thriving in a reshaped bureaucratic landscape, Washington's man in Baghdad 'acts like, and gets the respect accorded to, a Cabinet official.'

November 23, 2003|Doyle McManus and Sonni Efron | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — The war for control of Iraq may be far from over, but at least one power struggle appears to have been resolved for now: the battle for influence in Washington.

After months of sniping between the Pentagon, which seized control of Iraq policy before the U.S. invasion, and the State Department, which was irritated at being cut out, an apparent winner has emerged: L. Paul Bremer III, the former State Department official who is the chief U.S. civilian administrator in Baghdad.

On paper, Bremer still reports to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and works for Rumsfeld's department, which controls his budget, his staffing and even his ground transportation in Baghdad. But in fact, officials say, Bremer now reports to Rumsfeld, national security advisor Condoleezza Rice and Secretary of State Colin L. Powell simultaneously -- and often directly to President Bush, the surest signal of clout in Washington.

As a result, officials said, Bremer has begun to fill a new and increasingly autonomous role as Bush's de facto "secretary for Iraq."

"He essentially acts like -- and gets the respect accorded to -- a Cabinet official," said a State Department aide, who spoke on condition he not be identified.

The result is what officials describe as a faster decision-making process that allows Bremer and the U.S. military considerable leeway to improvise as they struggle both to put down a deadly insurgency and build a provisional Iraqi government.

In this reshaped bureaucratic landscape, the Pentagon -- with vast resources in both personnel and money for Iraq -- is still first among equals, officials said. But Rice's National Security Council staff has begun taking a more active role in coordinating and shaping decisions, and the State Department no longer feels quite as shut out as before.

Officials said the changes came partly as a result of prodding from Bush, who pressed his aides for quicker, more visible action in Iraq as polls showed eroding public confidence in the venture.

The first results came this month, when Bush and his advisors decided to revamp their timetable for setting up an Iraqi-run government in Baghdad. The decision was largely the result of talks between Bremer and Rice, officials said.

In Baghdad, Bremer realized that his multiyear timetable for electing a new government was bogged down in Iraqi internal disputes while a growing insurgency was undermining U.S. credibility and reconstruction efforts.

Two Sundays ago, he telephoned Rice -- who was attending a Washington Redskins football game at the time -- and told her that he needed to propose a change in course.

Rice's role, aides said, was to "coordinate" the proposals in Washington, which meant selling them to Bush, Vice President Dick Cheney, Rumsfeld and Powell.

The result was an abrupt shift in policy, from a plan that would probably have kept the U.S. in direct control of Iraq through all of next year to one that now promises to return sovereignty to Iraqis by July 1. The course correction on Iraq's political future was only one of several quick changes the Bush administration has executed in recent weeks in response to escalating violence in Iraq, and most had the same hallmarks: pressure from Bush, negotiation by Rice and a bit of on-the-ground improvisation by Bremer.

Last month, for example, Bush complained that the U.S. military's timetable for training a new Iraqi army wasn't fast enough. Officials said the Pentagon was already working on a plan to train Iraqi units more quickly, and Bremer agreed to soften his prohibition against rehiring senior officers who had served under Saddam Hussein.

Before that, the problem was getting the State Department and other agencies to send their best people to Baghdad to serve in a mission that, until then, had been seen as a wholly owned subsidiary of the Pentagon. But armed with a demand from Bush that every Cabinet agency chip in, Rice hit the telephone to ask for volunteers -- and Bremer got more names to fill out his relatively small staff.

The shift in bureaucratic influence toward Bremer and Rice comes, in a sense, at the expense of Rumsfeld's Pentagon -- but officials there say they are perfectly happy to share the burden of postwar reconstruction in Iraq.

"What's changing is the nature of the work being done," said Lawrence DiRita, Rumsfeld's chief spokesman. "As progress is made, more issues that don't involve the Defense Department are rising to greater prominence -- economic issues, political issues. A lot of Bremer's work is increasingly involving nonsecurity work. It's not a question of which agency is up and which is down."

NSC officials refused to be quoted about changes in the policy process, apparently to avoid offending Rumsfeld, who responded tartly last month to media reports that Rice's role was expanding.

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