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Iraq: U.S. Starts Reconstruction Effort Amid Tough Political Challenges

  • Charles Recknagel

Retired U.S. General Jay Garner kicked off his administration of Iraq this week by making tours of damaged sites in Baghdad and visiting the Kurdish-controlled north of the country. RFE/RL correspondent Charles Recknagel looks at what the general is telling Iraqis and at some of the challenges he faces.

Prague, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The new U.S. civil administrator for Iraq is spending his first week in the country trying to spread optimism through a society reeling from war and sudden collapse of its old order.

Retired General Jay Garner told Iraqi Kurds in the northern city of Arbil today that his goal is to help Iraq become a more democratic state in the future: "Our goal and our purpose here is to create an environment in Iraq where we can have a democratic process, where Iraqis can choose their own leaders and Iraqis can choose their own type of government. And we've put together a democratic process so at the end of that, Iraq has a government that represents the freely elected will of the Iraqi people."

Garner also promised Kurdish leaders they would be part of the democratic process: "You will see an Iraqi authority raised that will begin the governmental process and the Kirkuk question and other questions will be answered within that, and the leadership of Kurdistan will be full-fledged members of this governmental process."

Kurdish leaders are concerned about the future of the city of Kirkuk, where the deposed regime of Saddam Hussein evicted thousands of Kurdish residents and replaced them with Arabs. Kurdish leaders have called for making Kirkuk the capital of an Iraqi Kurdistan within a federal Iraq but face resistance from neighboring Turkey, which fears that might inspire its own Kurdish population to demand autonomy.

Garner is receiving a warm welcome in northern Iraq as he completes the second day of a visit to the region. His trip is part of a weeklong assessment tour that he began on Monday, when he arrived in Baghdad to set up headquarters as the chief of the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. Garner is accompanied by an initial team of some 19 civilian administrators that is due to grow to about 450 over the next week.

On 21 April, Garner got a much more subdued welcome by crowds in the Iraqi capital as he visited the looted central hospital and knocked-out water and power plants. Many government facilities were damaged in the war or stripped bare by looters, and while most of the capital's residents are happy to see Hussein gone, they are anxious about their future.

Touring the sites, the American general sought to reassure Baghdad residents that U.S. aid will begin flowing into the city soon.

"We are the first elements of our organization, and we are going to go make an assessment of health, power and water and then we'll begin flowing our people in here," Garner said. "We'll add to the capability that the coalition has already [shown]. They've already done an awful lot here. We'll begin to add to that capability and then spread out through the countryside."

The general's tour marks the formal start of the new U.S. civil administration in Iraq. U.S. officials plan to run government ministries, oversee the eventual introduction of a new currency, and create a new Iraqi police force and military, among other tasks.

Washington has given no end-date for its administration of Iraq, saying only that it will stay as long as necessary and no longer. Some government plans leaked to the press have envisioned 18 months of military rule -- possibly in cooperation with a transitional Iraqi authority or the UN -- to prepare the country for eventual elections.

Garner himself refused to be drawn out on this issue by reporters asking how long he will be in charge of Iraq. He said in Baghdad that his job is to start Iraq's transition, not to put timelines to it:

"I don't rule anything. I'm the coalition facilitator to establish a different environment, where these people can pull things together themselves and begin a self-government process and, with our assistance, begin a reconstruction process and end up with a democracy that represents the freely elected will of the Iraqi people."

As Garner calls on Iraqis to begin working with him toward a democratic future, one of his biggest challenges may be dealing with Iraqi leaders demanding a big voice in the process. Many clerics and politicians already have begun mobilizing in hopes of influencing or even directing how Washington restructures the country.

Correspondents in Baghdad report graffiti is flourishing on the streets as political parties return to life and seek new adherents. One slogan, hastily spraypainted on a wall by the Iraqi Communist Party, reads: "Freedom, Equality, Workers' Government." Another, painted by the Shi'ite Islamic Dawa Party, pledges to rebuild Iraq.

U.S. officials have said they will ban the former ruling Ba'ath Party but otherwise have put no restrictions on political organizers.

Determining who speaks for the majority of Iraqis will be one of Washington's major challenges. Another will be to decide how quickly it wants to give any parties a role in any interim Iraqi government. So far, most of the parties have distinguished themselves by publicly feuding with each other or with the U.S. authorities, even as they demand a stake in the political process.

A representative of the Shi'a-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), Hamid al-Biati, said recently that his organization "will never participate in any administration that is under the supervision of the United States." SCIRI, an exile group based in Tehran, has called for creating an Iraqi Islamic state along the Iranian model.

Lashing back, a pro-American Iraqi politician, Ahmed Chalabi, said over the weekend that "there is a role for the Islamic religious parties, including Shi'a religious parties, because they have some constituencies. But they are not going to be forcing any agency or any theocracy on the Iraqi people."

Chalabi, a leader of the secular Iraqi National Congress (INC), was the first major exile politician to reach Baghdad after the collapse of Hussein's government. He has called for U.S. forces to remain in Iraq until the country holds elections, a process he said could take two years.

At the same time, some Iraqi religious leaders who never went into exile have ruled out cooperating with either the INC or SCIRI because those parties were previously outside the country.

"The New York Times" recently quoted the imam of the prominent Al-Mahdi Mosque in Baghdad as saying, "We do not want an opposition coming from abroad or a proxy American government with Iraqi puppets." Imam Hadi al-Waeli added: "Iraqis who lived and suffered in Iraq have more rights to power than those who came from abroad."

The potential for conflict between rival clerics and politicians was amply demonstrated earlier this month in the killing of a high-ranking pro-U.S. religious leader who sought to re-establish his support in the southern city of Al-Najaf after years of exile.

Sheik Abdel Majid al-Khoi is widely believed to have been killed by supporters of the son of another prominent cleric assassinated four years ago by Saddam Hussein's agents. This month's killing may have been a warning that local leaders will not easily accept returning competitors.

The intensity of the country's political rivalries may explain in part why U.S. officials like Garner are concentrating on economics rather than on forming an interim Iraqi government as their first order of business. Washington appears to hope that quick economic progress will encourage Iraqi leaders to share power later by demonstrating that they all can participate in a more prosperous future.

In Baghdad, there are increasing signs that economic life now is reviving after days of looting and disorder following the collapse of the Hussein regime. RFE/RL's Radio Farda correspondent Payman Pezhman reported from the capital on 21 April that public buses are beginning to return to the streets. So are lines of motorists at gas stations.

"Though there is no transition government in place, and the coalition forces have not introduced one yet, life is going back to normal," Pezhman said. "Today, for the first time, I saw a bus, and I saw a couple of uniformed and armed police officers patrolling a couple of streets."

He continued: "Gas lines are getting longer every day. If one cannot be bothered to wait, one can buy gas in the black market for five times the ordinary price of about 10 U.S. cents per liter. Some American soldiers say electricity is sporadically returning to 40-60 percent of the city for 6-7 hours a day, but I can't confirm that. The water situation is much better, and larger areas have drinking water now."

Reuters reports that U.S. engineers and local volunteers are working to restore electricity to the still largely blacked-out capital. The news agency said repairs are progressing at the south Baghdad power plant, one of three stations serving the city's 5 million residents. Engineers plan to work on the remaining two stations next.