In Iraq Debate, Bremer Comes Out a Winner

Times Staff Writers

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.

Bremer's written reports on the situation in Iraq still go to Rumsfeld first. Rumsfeld puts a note on top, often with a comment, and forwards the reports to Bush, Cheney, Rice, Powell and CIA Director George J. Tenet.

But Bremer also communicates directly with Rice and Powell by telephone and e-mail, officials said -- important ways to make sure he can influence decisions without relying solely on Rumsfeld.

And when Bush and his top advisors meet in the White House to discuss progress or setbacks in Iraq, Bremer usually joins in via a high-security video link.

Along the way, Bremer has managed to remain on good terms with all of Washington's bureaucratic factions -- a highly unusual achievement in the battleground of Iraq policy.

When he was named to his job May 6, he quickly touched base with all factions -- the Pentagon, the State Department, the NSC, the CIA and Cheney's office -- and made sure they understood that, in his view, he was reporting directly to Bush, one former official said.

Bremer has brought an unusual range of bureaucratic credentials to the job. He began his career in the State Department and was an executive assistant to then-Secretary Henry A. Kissinger, "so he knows how to talk State Department," one official noted. And in a later State Department post as chief of counter-terrorism policy, and in more than a decade in private business, much of it at Kissinger's consulting firm, he won a reputation as a thoroughgoing hard-liner -- enough to please conservatives such as Cheney and Rumsfeld.

Like Kissinger, Bremer sometimes pushes the bureaucratic envelope. In August, he startled officials by publicly announcing that Iraq needed "several tens of billions" for reconstruction -- well before Bush had settled on a figure or a political strategy for unveiling it.

In Baghdad, officials said, Bremer has impressed Bush by making decisions quickly and crisply, and by being willing to change direction when some of his initial decisions turned out to be wrong.

In May, for example, Bremer decreed that Iraq's army was disbanded, only to find that the decision left thousands of well-trained, well-armed officers furious at being unemployed. A month later, Bremer changed course, announcing that most officers and soldiers could collect stipends. Since then, with the need for Iraqi civil defense forces more evident, U.S. authorities have offered places in the new security units to former officers.

Bremer and aides insisted that their initial decision to disband the army was right -- that it was better to start over than to try to reform a bloated military establishment run by members of the former regime. But they acknowledged that the new policy could have been introduced more gracefully.

Bremer's assertive style has also drawn criticism. Many Iraqis say they applaud his 20-hour workdays, but others consider him the embodiment of American arrogance. Some members of the Iraqi Governing Council, which Bremer appointed, argue that he has taken too long to correct some of his most controversial decisions.

And Bremer has been unable to put an end to the bureaucratic rivalries between the Defense and State departments, where middle-ranking officials remain deeply suspicious of one another.

Before the war, said a former official who declined to be identified, the Pentagon unveiled a chart that showed the Defense Department in charge of every new ministry in Iraq, "including functions on which they had no expertise.... It was clearly their intention to keep State and everyone else out." (DiRita disputed that characterization. "It was never all DOD," he said. "That's just a fallacy.")

Still, the State Department's role in Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority remains much smaller than the Pentagon's. Out of roughly 1,000 U.S. government staff in Iraq, only about 50 have come from the foreign service, officials said. But that number is scheduled to increase to about 150 by the end of the year.

At the White House, Rice made two changes at the NSC to step up coordination of Iraq policy. She created a new office within the NSC staff to handle Iraq and related issues under one of her top advisors, Robert D. Blackwill, a former ambassador to India. And she set up a new structure of interagency committees, the "Iraq Stabilization Group," to bring agencies other than the Pentagon into the policy process more regularly.

"Over time, it's likely that [Bremer] will be dealing a lot more with other departments," DiRita said. "It's a reflection of progress. And any time you can make it better, faster, quicker -- we're for it."

Times staff writer John Daniszewski in Baghdad contributed to this report.

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