General takes on arduous job: he's stepping up to run Iraq

Garner served during first gulf war, to return after military operations

War In Iraq

April 13, 2003|By Susan Baer | Susan Baer,SUN NATIONAL STAFF

WASHINGTON - Months after the end of the 1991 gulf war, U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the commander in charge of protecting and resettling Iraq's Kurdish refugees, stood at attention as the U.S. flag that flew over his headquarters in Zakhu was lowered and allied officials began their exodus from the country.

The Kurds, afraid that their failed uprising against Saddam Hussein's regime would spark bloody reprisals, protested the departure of their protectors. Some carried banners saying, "Thank you, but the job is only half done."

Garner, who days earlier had been hoisted shoulder-high in a crowd of Kurds, tried to ease their minds. The last U.S. official to cross the bridge into Turkey, Garner said: "We're just a phone call away."

After a phone call several months ago from an old colleague, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, the now-retired three-star general has returned to the gulf region - but this time for an infinitely more complex and arduous assignment.

Selected by Rumsfeld to be the top civilian administrator in Iraq once the U.S.-led military operation is complete, Garner, 64, will essentially run the country of 23 million and pave the way for a new Iraqi government to take over.

He is charged with overseeing the humanitarian effort, ensuring Iraqis have food, water, medicine and shelter; supervising the reconstruction of Iraq's schools, highways and infrastructure; maintaining order; keeping the oil flowing and reviving the nation's long-suffering economy; and laying the groundwork for a democratic government.

It is a position some have likened to that of U.S. Gen. Douglas MacArthur, who led Japan's reconstruction and transition to democracy after World War II. And while the Bush administration has stressed Garner's status as a civilian administrator, he nonetheless reports to Gen. Tommy R. Franks, commander of the U.S.-led invasion.

"It's a helluva job," says retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, a Garner friend who led the air campaign during the 1991 gulf war, marveling at the magnitude of the task. "You need someone who can keep 300 balls in the air at the same time and not be overwhelmed. He's very good at organizing things."

Add to his mission the task of answering critics, including many relief organizations and other nations, who believe the postwar reconstruction effort should not be headed by the United States - and especially by not an arm of the Pentagon - but by the United Nations or an international coalition.

Garner has been a focus of controversy, as well. Many in the Arab world have protested his ties to Israeli interests, while anti-war activists have deplored his work in the private sector as president of SYColeman, a missile defense contractor. Still others, including Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi, have criticized his lack of visibility in the days since Baghdad has fallen.

"Where is General Garner now?" Chalabi said on CNN on Wednesday from Nasiriyah. "Why are they not here?"

Clarifying roles

Since shortly before the war began, Garner and his staff of several hundred aid workers, government officials, retired military officers and diplomats - known as the "Garner Group" - have been holed up at a seaside villa in Kuwait City. There, they have been quietly - some say secretly - plotting their strategy, assessing the damage to and needs of Iraq and waiting for the nation to be secure enough to enter.

Garner did surface in Iraq for a time Friday, visiting the port city of Umm Qasr, saying he wanted to reassure the Iraqi people that the United States wants to help them rebuild their country, not take it over. He said his first priority was to set up a new police force.

The administration has answered few questions about Garner's operation and did not respond to calls for information. A news conference that had been scheduled for last Monday in Kuwait was canceled without explanation.

Garner, or at least part of his team, is expected to meet Tuesday with leaders of the Iraqi opposition in Nasiriyah.

Those who know Garner, who served two tours of duty in Vietnam, describe a "can-do" sort of guy - smart, energetic, blunt to a fault.

Along with his direct style is a lack of pretense, associates say. "I can guarantee he'll be walking around Iraq saying, `Call me Jay,'" says an associate, Chris Seiple, a former Marine now with the Institute for Global Engagement.

An expert in air defense systems, Garner reportedly directed Patriot missile batteries deployed to defend Israel from Iraqi Scud missile attacks in the first gulf war. The Patriot, given high marks after the war by Garner and others, was eventually shown to have been largely ineffective.

Garner later led missile defense programs for the Army and, a few years after retiring from the military in 1997, worked on a space security commission led by Rumsfeld, catching his eye with a straightforward manner, friends say.

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