Iraq: Who's Going To Lead The New Government?

In the heavyweight prizefight over Iraq's future, the winner of round one seems to be Secretary of State Colin Powell. For months the Bush administration has been deeply split over how to move from a U.S. military occupation to a new government run by Iraqis. One of the biggest rifts is over what the role of Iraqi exiles--led by the London-based Iraqi National Congress--will be in the newly liberated Baghdad. While some Pentagon officials support a prominent role for the INC and its controversial leader, Ahmed Chalabi, Powell's State Department and the CIA favor a government led by Iraqis currently living in Iraq.

At least for now, Powell has won the support of the White House. On March 12, President Bush formally signed off on a plan to create an interim authority that would balance the role of Iraqi insiders and exiles. Given the sheer number of Iraqis living inside the country, compared with the relatively small numbers of exiles, administration officials say that "balance" means the exiles will be outnumbered. And NEWSWEEK has learned that Bush assured British Prime Minister Tony Blair at Camp David last month that the so-called Iraqi Interim Authority would be dominated by internal Iraqis. "Bush agreed that we would not dream of parachuting people from outside Iraq to run Iraq," says one senior Blair aide. Bush and Blair will plan more details of Iraq's political future at their summit in Northern Ireland this week.

Still, the fight between State and Defense continues over when and how the interim Iraqi government takes power--and State concedes that it cannot control events on the ground. Once the shooting ends, the Pentagon will be in control of Iraq as well as the initial U.S. civilian administration, led by former general Jay Garner. Garner's team, known as the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, will work with Iraqis, aid groups and the United Nations to deliver basic services before handing power to the new Iraqi authority.

Some Pentagon officials are waging a rear-guard action over Garner's group. State has put forward Arab specialists and former ambassadors such as Barbara Bodine as part of the Garner team; Defense has tapped advisers including one of Chalabi's nephews, Salem Chalabi, a London lawyer. While some in the Pentagon have close ties to the exiles and hope to place them in early positions of power, the State Department and CIA are in contact with Iraqis on the ground, including tribal leaders and bureaucrats who have the potential to stay on as permanent leaders. As one senior State official said: "There is a question of whose Iraqis are going to take over. Is it going to be the technocrats you can identify--the people in the regime worth rehabilitating--or is it going to be people from the pubs of London?"

One senior White House official said much of the debate boiled down to the rival "egos" at State and Defense. And that's one battle that's not likely to end soon.

Iraq: Who's Going To Lead The New Government? | News