Accessibility links

Iraq: Former U.S. General Set to Take Over Civilian Power

  • Jeffrey Donovan

Jay Garner, a retired American general, is set to step into Iraq as the leader of a U.S.-led civilian administration that is coming under growing criticism. But as RFE/RL reports, Garner is used to being in the spotlight.

Washington, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The man set to become head of Iraq's new U.S.-led civilian administration has been dubbed variously as viceroy, proconsul, president-in-waiting, and even the "sheriff of Baghdad." Whatever you call him, Jay Garner has his work cut out for him.

The 64-year-old retired U.S. Army general, officially the director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), is set to lead Iraq's reconstruction and efforts to create an interim authority leading to a representative government.

It's a challenging task, and one that has put him at the center of a growing debate about America's role in postwar Iraq. Critics fear the U.S. role will come at the expense of a central place for the United Nations.

Garner is used to being in the spotlight, however. In 1991, Garner directed a U.S.-led humanitarian mission to protect northern Iraq's Kurds from Saddam Hussein's military. When his Operation Provide Comfort did just that, Garner was hoisted on the shoulders of Kurds, who gave him a hero's send-off.

Twelve years later, Garner is back, a fact which the Kurds, for one, are pleased about. That's according to Mike Amitay, director of the Washington Kurdish Institute, an advocacy group.

"I think the Kurds are very confident that he is going to do a good job. He is familiar with their situation there. He certainly empathizes with their plight, having been with them during the Provide Comfort Operation. And certainly when he returns to the region after 12 years, he'll be quite amazed to see the progress that's been made. And I think he, more than anyone, can appreciate how they can contribute in the future of Iraq," Garner said.

Not everyone is so happy.

International agencies, whose presence will be vital as soon as the shooting stops in Iraq, don't want to be closely associated with a military occupation force. Yet the U.S. and British military want to be seen as the benefactors of ordinary Iraqis, and are already involved in some humanitarian actions, such as food and water distribution.

David Wimhurst is a spokesman for the United Nations. He told RFE/RL: "We don't see humanitarian aid as being adjunct to military force. Armies that are fighting are parties to the conflict. By definition, they are not impartial."

The humanitarian problem is just one side of the issue. Garner, who since 1996 has directed a private defense consultancy, also faces criticism for being pro-Israel. Many Muslims mistrust him, saying he has accepted gifts from a Jewish lobbying group that argues Washington needs a strong Israel to project force in the Middle East.

Others question Garner's alleged support for the exiled Iraqi National Congress opposition group, whose members are part of the former general's 200-strong staff currently making preparations for Iraq in Kuwait City.

Garner has said little about his plans for Iraq and did not honor a request to testify last month before the U.S. Senate's Foreign Relations Committee.

Garner is also at the center of a turf war between the State Department and the Pentagon over who should have more power in selecting the members of an interim Iraqi authority. Garner's office is under the Pentagon, and he will report to U.S. war commander General Tommy Franks, but his funding is controlled by the State Department.

A Vietnam War veteran, Garner is an expert in air-defense systems and directed Patriot missile batteries used to defend Israel from Iraqi Scud missile attacks during the 1991 Gulf War.

Some say Garner's mix of military and civilian management is just right for postwar Iraq. Phil Anderson is a former U.S. Marine Corps officer and now an analyst with Washington's Center for Strategic and International Studies, a private think tank. "That's the kind of experience base that you need to get the job done. I just think that somebody with his background is better suited to it than a diplomat. I mean, you're talking about some very practical issues related to restoring infrastructure, as much as you're talking about issues related to restoring government," Anderson said.

Anderson compared Garner's role to that of U.S. General Douglas MacArthur, who led Japan's reconstruction and transition to democracy after World War II. "MacArthur did it in Japan, and did a heck of a great job at it -- but that was Douglas MacArthur," he said.

U.S. President George W. Bush has vowed that Garner's office will seek to hand over power to Iraqis as soon as possible. Critics, however, say that Washington, if it operates without the UN, will be hard-pressed to avoid setting up what will look like an American puppet regime in Baghdad.

Others disagree. Nile Gardiner is with the Heritage Foundation, a conservative think tank in Washington. He said Garner's team will work hard to hand over power to Iraqis who are seen as legitimate in the eyes of the Iraqi people. "I don't think it's really an issue of imposing a Pentagon-appointed leader here. I think it's an issue of negotiating very carefully with various Iraqi opposition groups and ensuring that the new leader of a post-Saddam Iraq has the full support of as many Iraqi people as possible," Gardiner said.

A new report by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) says Iraqis would not view exiles in power favorably. The report was leaked to the press yesterday.

The CIA report finds that Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile who is leader of the Iraqi National Congress, and Muhammad Baqer al-Hakim, who leads the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Tehran-based Shi'ite opposition group, both have little support among the Iraqi population.

After a summit with British Prime Minister Tony Blair in Belfast yesterday, Bush sought to dispel any notions that the U.S. will seek to hang on to power in Iraq or will turn it over to leaders who lack legitimacy inside Iraq.

"I hear a lot of talk about how we are going to impose this leader or that leader -- forget it," Bush said. "From day one, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country. That's what we believe. The position of the United States of America is: The Iraqis are plenty capable of running Iraq and that is precisely what is going to happen."

Garner's office, which will also run Iraq's oil fields, had its first taste of Iraq yesterday when a team of some 20 officials visited the southern port city of Umm Qasr. Their task was to assess local humanitarian needs and set up a dialogue with the local population.

Meanwhile, with Garner's reported approval, British forces in the southern city of Basra said yesterday they had chosen a local "shaykh" to form a leadership council in the province, which has been beset by rampant looting in recent days.