US post-war effort seen as on the brink of "fiasco"

Mon May 19, 7:42 PM ET

WASHINGTON (AFP) - Nearly 40 days after the fall of Baghdad, US efforts to restore order and establish a functioning administration in Iraq are faltering as US forces struggle to cope with lawlessness, a fragile infrastructure and fractious Iraqi political forces, analysts said.

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"It's close to a fiasco," said Loren Thompson, an analyst with the Lexington Institute, a Washington research organization.

"The contrasts between the efforts to rebuild Iraq and the stunning military victory could hardly be more pronounced."

Rejecting criticism that the United States failed to prepare for the post-war occupation, US Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld has suggested that no plan could have anticipated the conditions confronting US forces.

"You couldn't know how it would end," Rumsfeld said in an interview with The New York Times published Monday.

"When it did end, you take it as you found it and get at it, knowing the single most important thing is security."

But the Pentagon did have a detailed plan for the post-war rehabilitation of Iraq. It just proved overly optimistic.

As outlined in pre-war press conferences and congressional hearings, it called for a swift revival of the country's oil industry and economic life and an interim US-led administration advised by "free" Iraqis but run by mid-level Baathist bureaucrats.

US officials planned to keep intact government ministries other than the defense and interior ministries, and to use surviving elements of the Iraqi military for reconstruction tasks around the country.

After vetting, those military units would serve as the nucleus of a new Iraqi army under the original scheme. It assumed that Iraqis, once freed from a quarter century of oppressive dictatorial rule, would be eager to cooperate.

With that plan in mind, US commanders designed a military campaign that avoided widespread destruction of infrastructure, emphasized a swift resolution to the conflict and made an intensive but ultimately fruitless effort to encourage the Iraqi military to defect en masse.

But the Iraqi army, which fought rather than surrender, was destroyed or disappeared and the bureaucrats went home.

The regime also left behind empty jails and tonnes of small arms and ammunition distributed throughout Baghdad for a neighborhood-by-neighborhood defense of the city that failed to materialize, according to US military officials.

When US armored forces blitzed into Baghdad, the mix of criminals, defeated regime security forces and weapons in the absence of police turned the celebratory looting that followed into a prolonged and destabilizing crime spree.

"What prevented us from projecting authority early is we were still fighting," said a US defense official.

The US Central Command was slow to make the shift from combat to reconstruction, delaying the arrival in country of Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who was supposed to get the country running again.

"We've planned more for this than other ones," said the defense official. "But when you don't know what you're really going to have to face, it's tough to plan, project the degree of looting or how people would react."

In the view of the critics, though, the Pentagon made a fundamental miscalculation in believing that Iraq could be stabilized without a major commitment of troops over a long period of time.

"The problem is that they overlooked one key consideration, which is how do you assure civil order so that you can get on to all those other activities," Thompson said.

"I think the Bush Pentagon is so reluctant to accept open-ended military commitments, so ill disposed to acknowledging that it has a military that isn't up to all the tasks they face, that it simply assumed that it could restore civil order with a small, small force," he said.

In what appears to be a mid-course correction, Washington has sent a new civil administrator, Ambassador Paul Bremer, to Baghdad to replace Jay Garner, whose tenure was marked by a yawning security vacuum.

Bremer's arrival has coincided with a tougher approach to lawlessness. Commanders have put more troops on the street and launched a campaign of neighborhood cleanups and they are reassessing how many troops will be needed to stabilize Iraq.

Currently, there are more than 142,000 US troops in Iraq with another 20,000 from the 1st Armored Division flowing into the country.

The Pentagon has delayed the withdrawal of 3rd Infantry Division to give the 1st Armored Division time to get settled and also to give Bremer a chance to weigh in on the question of how large a force will be required, the defense official said.

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