Looking For A Leader Amid The Ashes

Nobody blinked when Tommy Franks, the commander of U.S. forces in Iraq, told President Bush's senior advisers that he would be flying free Iraqis into southern Iraq at the start of this month. After all, the U.S. military needed all the help they could muster to separate friend from foe on the road to Baghdad. But Franks never mentioned that his group of free Iraqis would be led by Ahmed Chalabi, the controversial former banker who heads the London-based Iraqi National Congress, senior administration officials tell NEWSWEEK. Many of Bush's closest aides were surprised by the news that Chalabi and about 700 of his fighters were already operating in the newly liberated regions of Iraq. Onboard Air Force One, flying back from Northern Ireland with the president last week, Condoleezza Rice could only sputter as she was quizzed about Chalabi's activities. "I'm sorry, I was in Moscow. I'm a little bit unsighted on this," said the normally polished national-security adviser. "I just don't know." By the time Chalabi emerged to speak live to CNN from An Nasiriya, Saddam Hussein's rule was finished and the Iraqi exile was morphing into a presidential candidate.

Chalabi's flight into southern Iraq onboard a U.S. military transport plane--along with his own U.S.-trained fighters--signals the central challenge for the Bush administration as it attempts to shape Iraq's new politics. Will the United States rapidly place its own Iraqis in power or will a new leadership slowly emerge from the ground? Senior officials are determined to avoid the impression that the war was just another colonial conquest of Arab lands. When a rambunctious U.S. Marine placed the Stars and Stripes over the face of Saddam's statue in downtown Baghdad, the reaction inside the State Department came from the gut. "We were all screaming at the television to take the flag down," said an aide to Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Now that the blitzkrieg dash to Baghdad is over, the administration is trying to cool things down. At a meeting on Tuesday evening Bush's national-security advisers agreed to stage a series of regional gatherings to help find the technocrats and tribal leaders to run the country, setting the stage for a grand Baghdad conference in a few months. Administration officials say Chalabi will not attend the first session on Tuesday, April 15, scheduled for An Nasiriya, NEWSWEEK has learned. "We're trying to let new people emerge and speak and we didn't want them to feel overshadowed by prominent national figures," says one senior official.

Yet, as the fog of war gives way to the fog of peace, Washington's intricate plans for Iraq's future are being overtaken by the facts on the ground. For months, the State Department has been holding earnest meetings of Iraqi exiles and D.C. bureaucrats on how to rule a new Iraq. From obscure regulators to esoteric think tanks, Washington has been churning out wonkish papers on worthy issues, such as how to dispose of hospital garbage and expand the efficiency of Iraq's hydroelectric power plants. But the reality is less tidy. Rival leaders are carving up their own territories. Chalabi is already building his own political base in the south, schmoozing sheiks and sending envoys to mediate local disputes. And if some of his political enemies are to be believed, he's also adopted a time-honored tactic of ward-heeling pols everywhere: he's handing out cash. "He's been offering thousands of dollars to tribal leaders," says one rival. Chalabi's spokesman, Zaab Sethna, categorically denies the rumors. "I wish it were true," he says, "but we do not have such funds." Instead, Sethna says it is the CIA that is handing out cash and satellite phones to local leaders.

The disarray inside Washington and the chaos inside Iraq threaten to undermine hopes for a rapid transition to civilian rule. In Kuwait a group of U.S. civilians under retired Gen. Jay Garner has yet to take over the Iraqi ministries that deliver basic services, even as medical, water and power supplies collapse in Iraq's cities. Then there is the resentment many Iraqis feel about any outside interference; the exiles, they argue, simply haven't suffered the way the locals have. "We call them five-star-hotel fighters," said Sheik Mansour Abdul Razak al Kanan, a tribal leader in the town of Az Zubayr. "We're the ones who stayed with our community."

Mansour, like other Shiite leaders in the south, is adamantly opposed to the regional meeting now scheduled for Tuesday. Without their support, the administration's grand plans for an organically grown government will struggle to survive in the harsh terrain of post-Saddam Iraq. If Washington was surprised by the pace of the war, it could be left in the dust by the pace of the peace.

Looking For A Leader Amid The Ashes | News