The Best-Laid Plans

Chatting on a shaded veranda at one of Saddam Hussein's former palaces, the American general spoke with disarming candor. It was mid-May in the dictator's hometown of Tikrit, already a month after the regime's fall, but no one could say when or how genuine peace would be established. Asked if the Army had a template for peacekeeping in Iraq, V Corps commander Lt. Gen. William Wallace laughed softly to himself. "Well," he answered, "we're making this up here as we go along."

They had no choice. Bush advisers never guessed that the postwar reconstruction would be so difficult. After months of denial, senior officials now admit there has been serious frustration at the White House over the unexpectedly slow pace of restoring civil order and rebuilding the country. Many of the problems may have been inevitable consequences of Saddam's misrule. But the difficulties have been multiplied by conflicts and confusion within the administration. The brief term of retired Gen. Jay Garner, the administration's first director of reconstruction in Iraq, was dominated by the incessant feud between State Department diplomats and Defense Department hawks. Garner, a close friend of Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld's, felt obliged to ignore reports that had been prepared by Iraqi exiles at the State Department's request--and the lack of that knowledge did not help the reconstruction effort.

The planners anticipated problems. The trouble is, they anticipated the wrong ones. U.S. officials prepared for a massive humanitarian crisis--water shortages, huge flows of refugees, even famine--that never took place. One senior official told NEWSWEEK that 70 percent of the administration's prewar planning was devoted to humanitarian needs. "Essentially we planned our a-- off for stuff that didn't happen," the official says.

Meanwhile, they overlooked a scarcity that is crippling Iraq: electricity. Senior officials tell NEWSWEEK that in planning for the postwar phase, no one realized what a wreck Iraq's power grid was. "We were shocked by the extent of the dilapidation," says one official. But why was it such a surprise? It was common knowledge that Iraq's electrical system was badly damaged in the first gulf war, and sanctions severely limited the regime's ability to make the necessary repairs. According to a recent U.N. report, Iraq's generating plants never regained much more than half the operating capacity they had before Desert Storm. The looting and sabotage of recent months have only added to the difficulties that already existed.

The shortage of organized manpower is just as bad. Iraqi troops were expected to surrender or defect en masse to the invading forces. Bush aides say the hope was to put the disarmed fighters to work as a huge reconstruction corps. Instead, much of Saddam's military evaporated into heaps of cast-off uniforms as the enlistees deserted and went home. At the same time, U.S. authorities seem to have little idea what to do with the remaining Iraqi forces. Soon after taking charge, L. Paul Bremer III officially disbanded Iraq's Army as part of a sweeping plan to eradicate the Baath Party. Violent street protests quickly forced him to reverse that policy, promising that some 250,000 Iraqi officers will receive a monthly salary for the indefinite future. "Demobilizing an army, not paying them any money and turning them out on the streets," says one reconstruction official with extensive expertise in Iraq, "that's probably Rule No. 1 of what not to do."

Especially when your forces are stretched too thin. On Capitol Hill and at the State Department, advocates of a larger ground force in Iraq consider themselves vindicated by the continuing violence. "The war plan didn't have enough people--period," says one senior State Department official. Republican and Democratic senators are pushing the White House to request NATO's help with peacekeeping duties in Iraq. The administration is not interested. "There's no obvious military need for NATO as NATO now," says one senior administration official. For the moment, France and Germany aren't getting anywhere near the action. The flaws in the script have already forced America to do far too much ad-libbing.