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White House Divided Over Reconstruction

Times Staff Writer

The Bush administration is deeply riven by disputes over postwar Iraq, particularly on three key issues -- the role of the United Nations, who will lead the country and which elements of the U.S. government will oversee its reconstruction, administration officials say.

The fight, those involved say, is about whether Iraq is transformed through an international effort under U.N. supervision, as the State Department prefers, or through a process designed and controlled largely by the United States and designated Iraqis, as the Pentagon prefers.

So far, the Pentagon’s approach is prevailing, producing intense squabbling both in Washington and at the Hilton Hotel in Kuwait, where many U.S. officials are drafting plans and preparing to head to Baghdad when the war ends.

At a meeting scheduled Thursday in Brussels, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell plans to tell his European and NATO counterparts that the Bush administration wants United Nations assistance with humanitarian and reconstruction projects, and possibly a stabilization force, but seeks no help in re-creating Iraq politically, U.S. officials said. The Pentagon has championed this approach.

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“His message is: There’s still a role for the world to play, but there are limits to what’s possible under this administration. There’s room for a U.N. role, but not U.N. rule,” said a well-placed U.S. official, who disagrees with this approach.

“We’re on the verge of further alienating allies,” said the official, speaking on the condition of anonymity. “And it looks like we’re going to do exactly what we promised we wouldn’t -- take small groups of exiles with limited influence in Iraq and bring them in as the bulk of a transition government.”

Decisions being made now, U.S. officials said, could have an impact well beyond Iraq’s borders and long after the U.S. finishes both its military and political missions in Iraq. They could affect everything from the extent of global cooperation the United States can expect in tackling security threats to U.S. alliances in the region.

“What was supposed to go the smoothest is proving to be the hardest part. Some of our worst fears about the postwar period are already coming true,” said a senior administration official.

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A Pentagon official insisted Tuesday that reports of interagency friction “are just exaggerated,” adding that “there’s a lot of people from a lot of different agencies that are working to fulfill the goal of providing necessary humanitarian support for the Iraqi people after the fall of the Iraqi regime.”

The United States’ insistence on a limited role for the United Nations could deepen tensions with key allies, who would prefer that the U.N. oversee the political transition to a democratically elected government in Baghdad. The allies also may be reluctant to provide funding for postwar Iraq if they have limited say in the decision-making process, U.S. officials conceded.

Even British Prime Minister Tony Blair, Washington’s main ally in the war, stressed during talks in Washington last week the importance of turning over the administration of Iraq to the United Nations. Blair sees the move as critical to winning support from donor nations and to preventing a political backlash and new terrorism from an increasingly angry Arab world, U.S. and British officials say.

Congressional leaders also are warning the White House against going it alone.

By failing to engage the United Nations after the war, the United States would “miss an opportunity” to repair damage to the world body and to important U.S. alliances needed for the war on terrorism and other issues, said Delaware Sen. Joseph R. Biden, the top Democrat on the Senate Foreign Relations Committee.

“By gaining U.N. approval, we would help political leaders around the world whose people oppose the war justify their participation -- including financial participation -- in building the peace,” he said on the Senate floor last week.

On new postwar Iraqi leadership, the Pentagon is now making decisions that could virtually ensure that Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial Iraqi National Congress leader who fled Iraq in 1958, becomes the transitional leader after the ouster of Saddam Hussein, U.S. officials say.

“Chalabi is the Pentagon’s guy, and the Pentagon is in charge,” an administration official said.

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Pentagon strategists want to see a known ally in power in Iraq as part of an ambitious regional reshuffling of alliances, with Iraq emerging as a pillar of U.S. policy in the region, the officials added.

Chalabi, a U.S.-educated former banker, is a charismatic Shiite Muslim but also a divisive figure with a checkered past. He was tried and convicted in absentia in Jordan for bank fraud and senior Arab officials say he would not be welcome in several Middle East countries.

The Pentagon favors Chalabi -- a long-standing ally of Vice President Dick Cheney, Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz and influential neo-conservative strategist Richard Perle -- particularly after the failure of possible alternative Iraqi leaders to emerge.

“Originally, the argument for needing Chalabi and the INC was that the war would be over so quickly that the United States would need to have someone ready fast. Now the argument is just the reverse, that no one else is emerging, so we need Chalabi to play the leadership role,” said the administration official.

The State Department has fought the Pentagon on Chalabi, because of to deep skepticism about his acceptability both at home and in the region.

“Iraq’s future needs to be decided by the broadest possible grouping of Iraqis reflecting Iraq’s diverse ethnic and religious makeup, and people from both inside and outside Iraq,” State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Thursday when the exiled opposition announced plans to declare a provisional government once Baghdad is liberated.

Creating a government before liberation would disenfranchise the vast majority of Iraqis, Boucher warned. The mechanism for selecting an interim government will be determined only after the war, he added.

Yet Pentagon staff deployed in Kuwait, backed by Defense Department strategists in Washington, are already selecting Iraqi exiles to staff key ministries in Baghdad, according to U.S. officials in Washington and Kuwait. Most are aligned with Chalabi, potentially giving his Iraqi National Congress the dominant voice in the transition.

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Tensions between the State Department and Pentagon are even playing out in the selection of U.S. personnel for duty in Iraq. The Defense Department has so far refused to approve the State Department’s eight-person team to help run ministries.

The bickering over plans and personnel has particularly frustrated retired Gen. Jay M. Garner, the Pentagon-appointed head of the new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, said U.S. officials in Washington and Kuwait. He has even told some associates that he contemplated quitting.


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