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Republicans Seek State Dept. Control in Iraq

September 13, 2003|Sonni Efron and Janet Hook | Times Staff Writers

WASHINGTON — Frustrated by the slow pace of reconstruction in Iraq, an increasingly vocal group of Republicans on Capitol Hill is urging the White House to shift control of the effort from the Pentagon to the State Department.

The State Department, with its ability to muster civilian technocrats, is better equipped than the Pentagon to undertake the massive task of rebuilding Iraq, some argue. Others suggest that putting more of a civilian face on the U.S. presence in Iraq would defuse anti-American sentiment.

"You are more likely to get things accomplished without appearing to be occupiers," said one GOP senator, who asked not to be named. "Any opportunity you have to minimize the military look is probably a good thing."

A senior House Republican aide said that as problems in Iraq mount, so does debate on Capitol Hill about who should run Iraq. And as the political stakes rise, congressional Republicans are increasingly prepared to press the president.

"There isn't a consensus, but there is discontent with the Pentagon," the aide said. "These people do not do well on humanitarian reconstruction work. They never have."

Others said that although many GOP lawmakers were frustrated with postwar developments, it would be premature and unwise to change course now.

"The practicality and the experience of our military leadership in Iraq is of great value," Rep. Duncan Hunter (R-El Cajon), chairman of the House Armed Services Committee, said Friday. "We should leverage that talent at this point instead of trying to displace it with a State Department apparatus."

Sen. Richard G. Lugar (R-Ind.) has publicly raised questions before about the Pentagon's role in reconstruction. And in an interview Thursday, Lugar said he argued in a one-on-one meeting with President Bush last week that the Pentagon is ill-suited to nation-building.

The senator declined to characterize the president's response, saying only that the administration seemed open to creative ideas.

Lugar, chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, also said he planned to hold hearings soon to "think through what is the most appropriate branch of government" to handle different functions in Iraq.

Fighting the war, rebuilding infrastructure and political development require "separate sets of skills or strengths," he said. The State Department, he said, was probably better equipped than the Pentagon to rebuild Iraq. But Lugar said he would wait for the outcome of the hearings and listen to all points of view before offering a formal proposal.

Sen. Charles Hagel (R-Neb.), a Foreign Relations Committee member, said he agreed with Lugar.

"Our troops have performed better than anyone could have ever thought, but the sophistication of this phase [of reconstruction] is going to require a different set of skills and infrastructure and leadership," he said in an interview Friday.

With armed resistance to the U.S. presence in Iraq continuing, the Republican critics are not suggesting that the military's role providing security in Iraq is over. Rather, they want to see the reconstruction of infrastructure and political life directed by the State Department.

The U.S. military reservists who are handling much of the civil reconstruction have done a fine job, but "they are not a cadre of people we can count on for nation-building over months and years," Lugar said, adding: "This is not a criticism of the Pentagon."

L. Paul Bremer III, the U.S. civilian administrator of Iraq, is a former State Department official who reports directly to Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld.

A Pentagon spokesman said Friday that his agency had not seen a proposal to change that line of command and could not comment on reports that Lugar and others were considering options. There was no immediate comment from the White House.

"We are prepared to do on behalf of the United States whatever the president asks us to do," a senior State Department official said. "The issue is not who gets control over Iraq, but how we can help the Iraqis take back their sovereignty, and that applies to the U.S. government too."

Even if Bush were inclined to take control of the Iraqi reconstruction effort away from Rumsfeld, some observers questioned whether Secretary of State Colin L. Powell would be eager to take over an effort that has been thwarted by terrorist bombings, assassinations and sabotage.

Much of Congress' ire has been directed at Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz, one of the key intellectual architects of the Iraq war.

"Somebody's got to be held responsible for this," said Rep. John P. Murtha (D-Pa.), a hawkish Democrat who is usually supportive of the Pentagon but now faults Wolfowitz.

Another Democrat, Rep. David R. Obey of Wisconsin, has called for Rumsfeld and Wolfowitz to resign because of their responsibility for what he called a "disaster" in planning for the postwar occupation.

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