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.
"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."
Garner's plan calls for dividing Iraq into three administrative sectors. Directly beneath him will be three civilian coordinators who will run Iraq's northern, central and southern regions.
Barbara Bodine, U.S. ambassador to Yemen during the October 2000 bombing of the destroyer Cole and charge d'affaires in Kuwait during the Iraqi invasion and occupation, will head the most crucial central region, which includes Baghdad. Bodine served in Baghdad in the early 1980s.
"These coordinators will then set up committees in each of the provinces," a senior Pentagon official explained. "Those provinces will nominate to us work that they want to see done."
Each Iraqi government ministry, the official added, will have "a U.S. face" and several of the U.S.-trained Iraqi exiles, although Iraq's current bureaucrats will continue to work there with U.S. pay.
The official stressed that the Pentagon hopes much of the heavy engineering and construction work will be done by Iraq's regular army.
U.S. AID is about to award a capital construction contract for postwar Iraq, worth up to $600 million. It is one of eight major contracts the agency has solicited U.S. companies to bid on in the last several weeks.
Among the companies AID selected to compete for the construction contract are Bechtel Group Inc., Southern California-based Fluor Corp. and Kellogg Brown & Root, a division of Halliburton Co., the company Dick Cheney headed before running for vice president.
The contract calls for the assessment and repair of Iraq's power grid, its water and sewage systems, hospitals, schools, up to five airports and its strategic Umm al Qasr port in the south.
The other AID contracts -- just the first of what may well run into the tens of billions of dollars' worth of postwar business in Iraq -- are to manage seaports, airports, public health, local governance and primary and secondary education, including the printing of millions of new textbooks.
AID officials insist that the agency employees who form the core of Garner's initial force -- a 62-member "disaster assistance response team" -- will coordinate their efforts with international humanitarian groups such as the Red Cross.
They stress that the team will be involved only in the initial emergency response phase, a bridge to a longer-term rebuilding effort.
"There are those in the world that look at the [response team] as being tainted by the military anyway. And that's probably because we have no compunction about working with the military," said McConnell, the AID official.
The Man in Charge
AID and the Pentagon are banking on not just the military but on Garner to push the plan into place. He is, after all, the only man who has done it before. And he did it in Iraq -- without firing a single shot.
"The best model that has taken place in the last 15 years for transition from military to peacekeeping ... is right there, sitting in northern Iraq today," said Paul D. Wolfowitz, deputy secretary of defense. And Garner laid its foundations.
"He's an impatient guy, but this is a job that's going to need somebody who moves fast." Wolfowitz said.
When Garner, backed by 1,400 U.S. Marines, went into the northern Iraqi town of Zakhu just days after the Gulf War ended, he was facing a humanitarian disaster -- and a possible military confrontation with the Iraqi military.
Hundreds of thousands of Kurds had fled their fertile valleys during the U.S.-led bombing. The Iraqi military was still in charge.
Garner moved fast. He negotiated face to face with Iraqi military officers, established a command post in Zakhu and quickly fanned out his forces to liberate a radius of 35 miles.
"We just keep kicking the can a little farther down the road each day," Garner told reporters at the time.
Iraq's assessment of Garner and his mission at the time came in the army newspaper Al Qadissiya, which called them proof that "the American dream is to fragment Iraq and impose complete domination over it."
The Kurds begged to differ.
The day before Garner left a Kurdish haven just months after he had arrived, about 4,000 Kurds demonstrated, urging him to stay.
Garner waded into the crowd, trading a Kurdish cap for his own, and the Kurds hoisted him onto their shoulders and carried him to his helicopter.