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Iraq Deal on Airline Is Probed

A U.S. official's plan involved a company suspected of aiding Hussein. The case may reflect flaws in the reconstruction process.

June 23, 2004|T. Christian Miller | Times Staff Writer

WASHINGTON — The top U.S. transportation official in Iraq was forced out after conducting closed-door negotiations to create a national airline with a firm suspected of helping Saddam Hussein's regime skirt United Nations sanctions, according to documents and current and former U.S. officials.

The proposal fell apart when top officials in the Coalition Provisional Authority became concerned by the involvement of Alia Transportation of Jordan, an alleged partner in Hussein's scheme to divert funds from the U.N. "oil-for-food" program.

The plan also drew criticism for appearing to grant Alia an inside track to a lucrative contract without competitive bidding, and for financing the airline in a way that could violate a U.N. resolution.

The airline proposal was one of several problems that led senior CPA officials to send Darrell M. Trent back to Washington in March, the sources said. The coalition authority's inspector general is investigating Trent's actions.

The case offers a window onto what critics describe as a haphazard reconstruction effort. U.S. officials, under pressure to produce results, sometimes cut corners. Million-dollar deals have been done overnight, sometimes with shadowy partners. Critics say the effort also has been hampered by Pentagon cronyism.

Trent, who was the U.S. senior advisor to the Iraqi Ministry of Transportation, has not been accused of any illegal acts, and there is no evidence that he personally benefited from the deal. A U.S. official said that so far there is no sign that any money was misdirected.

Some say Trent's case appears to be partly a matter of sloppy administration.

"A lot of people came over to Iraq and had a cowboy attitude toward getting things done," said one observer familiar with Trent's actions. "This could just be a case of somebody trying to get something done and maybe not knowing all the rules."

Trent's nine months in Iraq were marked by continuing problems with Iraq's railroads, airports and port operations, high staff turnover and allegations of mismanagement.

Trent, 65, a former U.S. deputy secretary of Transportation, was part of a network of friends from the Reagan and Nixon eras who joined the U.S. government's reconstruction effort in Iraq, several of whom have come under fire for their business dealings.

During his time in Iraq, Trent worked with his close friend John A. Shaw, a former Reagan White House aide and now a deputy undersecretary of Defense. Shaw is under investigation by the FBI for trying to steer an Iraqi telecommunications contract to a company whose board members included a friend who served in the Commerce Department during the first Bush administration.

Many involved in the troubled reconstruction of Iraq have come to believe that the Pentagon's reliance on a cadre of people who were close friends with senior officials such as Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and Deputy Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz hampered the rebuilding effort.

The Pentagon failed to tap a broader pool of talent with more recent and relevant experience in creating basic services such as air transportation, critics say.

"They might not have been the best people for the jobs, but they were known commodities to the Pentagon people who were organizing a team very quickly in Iraq," one former coalition official said. "What we built in Baghdad was an extension of the Washington scene. So it's not surprising the same people showed up at the party."

Trent declined to comment. His longtime friend, attorney and former chief deputy in Iraq, Frank Willis, strongly defended Trent's actions.

During his tenure in Iraq, Trent helped oversee the partial reopening of the ports in southern Iraq and worked toward establishing cellular phone service in the country, Willis said.

Trent "is fundamentally an ethical guy," Willis said. "It'd be out of character from my perspective for him to try to pull something cute."

Trent worked with Rumsfeld in President Nixon's White House, and in President Reagan's Transportation Department. He worked on Reagan's presidential campaigns in 1976 and 1980. Trent left government for a career in real estate and waste management, and is now a senior researcher at the Hoover Institution, a conservative think tank.

At the request of old friends in the Pentagon in the spring of 2003, Trent went to Iraq to oversee the reconstruction of Iraq's shattered transportation and telecommunications system.

His responsibilities included reopening the nation's ports and railroad system, reestablishing phone and mail services, and overseeing the creation of a cellular phone system.

But one of his biggest jobs was to get commercial flights running again.

Security concerns had forced the postponement of the opening of Baghdad's airport and the cancellation of plans for commercial service to Basra.

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