Historic meeting set today in Iraq

Ex-U.S. general to preside as potential Iraqi leaders discuss the nation's future

War In Iraq

April 15, 2003|By Tracy Wilkinson | Tracy Wilkinson,SPECIAL TO THE SUN

KUWAIT CITY - A swift war has handed Jay Garner, the retired American general charged with rebuilding Iraq, a rare and daunting opportunity: to create a new state, from government ministries and police forces to money and television stations.

It is a race against the clock, Garner acknowledges, against the forces of anarchy that are sapping Iraq and the growing resentment against Americans who have ridded the nation of President Saddam Hussein but left nothing, so far, in his place.

"If you are absent too long, while expectations are created for our government, our people and the Iraqi people, then a vacuum occurs," Garner said yesterday. "And if you are not there, the vacuum gets filled in ways you don't want."

Garner faces a major test today when he presides over the first meeting of Iraq's potential leaders. About 70 Iraqis from all over the country and abroad - and from factions that are hotly distrustful of one another - have been invited to attend the session in the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.

Garner and other U.S. officials call the meeting historic, a political discussion in a country where that was often punished. Yet they have also tried to lower expectations.

The retired three-star general leads a team of about 300 former military men, diplomats and functionaries from numerous government agencies who have been recruited by the Bush administration, and especially by the Pentagon, to administer postwar Iraq. They have spent the past month holed up in waterfront villas in Kuwait City, awaiting orders, but last week began fanning out across southern and northern Iraq.

The Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, or ORHA, represents a formidable nation-building program that has also been criticized as American imperialism - with Garner cast as a veritable pro-consul. (A Web site, StopJayGarner.com, advocates putting the United Nations, and not the U.S. military, in charge of Iraq's reconstruction.)

Senior U.S. officials, speaking at the headquarters of U.S. Central Command in Qatar, described today's session as the first in a series of regional gatherings leading to a national meeting at which Iraqis will establish an interim authority to run the country.

"We would like to set up the interim authority as soon as possible," said one U.S. official. "We're talking about weeks, not a lot longer than that."

Along with Garner, White House special envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker will lead the discussion.

It was unclear last night how many of the invitees would attend. Some chafe at U.S. dominance, and others may not feel safe enough to travel to Nasiriyah. A major Shiite opposition group said yesterday that it would not attend, saying it does not accept "a U.S. umbrella." Ahmad Chalabi, leader of another opposition group and a Pentagon favorite to be the next president of Iraq, said he would send a representative.

Garner played down the intense rivalry among the Iraqi factions and especially between those Iraqis who remained in the country during the Hussein decades and those in exile.

"I don't think you had a love-in when they [Americans] began in Philadelphia," Garner told the Los Angeles Times and The New York Times. "Tension and discord, that's the way democracy begins. It's part of the process, and the end point is them governing themselves.

"Any time you start this type of process to lead to democratic self-government, it is fraught with dialogue, tension and coercion, and it should be. If you can't answer the tough questions, you ought not be there."

Tracy Wilkinson writes for the Los Angeles Times, a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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