Who's In Charge Here?

An air of somnolence hung over Saddam Hussein's former Republican Palace along the Tigris River. In the sweltering streets outside the gates, desperate Iraqis lined up for meager rations of gasoline, armed looters prowled the charred ruins of ministries and banks, and another power outage paralyzed the capital. But the marble hallways of the palace, now the headquarters of the Organization for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), were quiet as a tomb. Staffers read paperbacks or lazed on cots set up beneath chandeliers and lavish murals. Nearby, an Army civil-affairs team barbecued meat and played touch football on a parched lawn. When asked, lounging staffers explained that it was a Friday--the day of rest in Iraq--so they were taking the day off, too.

They may not be able to rest much longer. Last week the White House announced that Jay Garner, the retired general and chief administrator of Iraq, was out of a job, barely three weeks after his arrival in Baghdad. Several top aides are also leaving, including Barbara Bodine, a former ambassador to Yemen who had been in charge of reconstruction for the Baghdad region. Garner's replacement is L. Paul Bremer, a counterterrorism expert at the State Department. At his first press conference in Baghdad, Bremer praised Garner and insisted that the handover reflected a longstanding plan to turn governance of Iraq to a "civilian administration." But sources in both Iraq and Washington say that Garner's brief tenure was a debacle--plagued by inexperience, bureaucratic infighting and inertia--and that the White House had grown alarmed at his failure to establish order and restore basic services in Baghdad. "It was amateur hour," says a senior ORHA official.

Garner's staff probably never had the expertise required for the mission. The Pentagon filled the top ranks of ORHA with Defense officials and retired generals; the State Department added a handful of ex-ambassadors, most with backgrounds in Arab affairs. Neither contingent had hands-on experience in nation-building. Of 200 key officials, the ORHA team included only a dozen specialists who had worked in war zones such as East Timor or Kosovo. Veterans of the United Nations and private humanitarian aid groups, or nongovernmental organizations, were told they weren't welcome. "The NGO community asked and asked for a meeting with responsible Defense officials," says Ken Bacon, a former Pentagon spokes- man who is now president of Refugees International. "We never got one." A USAID official says he and his colleagues repeatedly warned that combating civil disorder should be the top priority. "But they just didn't get it," he said. "They planned for the best-case scenario every time."

When looting swept across the city after Saddam's fall, both ORHA and the military were caught unawares. The Third Infantry Division, which has fewer than 20,000 troops to safeguard a city of 5 million, was overwhelmed. "[Third ID commander Gen. Buford] Blount didn't do a take-charge, lockdown, martial-law approach to the city," said one senior ORHA official with a military background. "He let things get way out of control, and they still are." By one count, more than 240 people have been killed in Baghdad during the past three weeks, mostly by gunshots. The Army has still failed to provide security for vital utilities, including 39 electrical substations in Baghdad. ("I need money and security, and I've got neither," an interim minister, Karim Hassan, told NEWSWEEK.) Garner, meanwhile, delayed setting up a civilian police force, and the Army brass often ignored his demands for improved coordination. Coalition commander Gen. David McKiernan "was not going to ask him diddly, and even brigade commanders wouldn't talk to him," says a top official of the Iraqi National Congress who has regular contact with the Americans. "He didn't project authority."

The collapse of security has frequently left Garner's staff stranded behind the palace walls. ORHA officials often wait hours for military Humvees to escort them to meetings at the 23 Iraqi ministries they're trying to rebuild. Last week one ORHA staffer arranged to meet 1,000 employees of the Ministry of Planning to give each an emergency $20 payment--a standard subsidy for government workers until a new salary scale can be devised. The military, which didn't deem his mission a priority, canceled the convoy at the last minute, leading to hours of arguments and finally an appeal to a general to secure the vehicles. The widespread impression is that U.S. administrators are out of touch with what is happening beyond the palace walls. That view has been cemented by embarrassing missteps. Bodine stunned reporters at a meeting two weeks ago by admitting ignorance about the killing of 15 Iraqi civilians by U.S. Marines in the town of Al Fallujah two days earlier.

Garner's downfall may have been sealed when U.S. Special Envoy Zalmay Khalilzad and Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker arrived in Baghdad in late April for meetings with Iraqi opposition groups. Horrified by reports of chaos in the streets, the diplomats traveled around Baghdad to see the situation for themselves. They returned to Washington with a warning: the absence of order was creating a vacuum that might be filled by local warlords and Iranian agents. "There are guns everywhere [in Baghdad] and civil order has collapsed," Khalilzad told colleagues at the National Security Council, according to a participant.

Can Bremer bring order to the Iraqi capital? His team includes former New York City police commissioner Bernard Kerik, who led the force through the September 11 terrorist attacks. Bremer said that 2,200 additional MPs would arrive in Baghdad soon, bringing the total number to 4,000, and soldiers in the Third Infantry Division have been told that their return home may be delayed. Unlike Garner, who reported to CENTCOM commander Gen. Tommy Franks, Bremer answers directly to Rumsfeld, and enjoys easy access to Colin Powell. That clout in Washington should give him leverage with top generals such as McKiernan, who pledged a new effort to crack down on Baghdad crime in a telling press conference last week. Halfway through McKiernan's remarks, the lights went off, and the general was forced to continue in darkness. The team that runs the generator, it turns out, had shut off the power and gone home at 7 o'clock--too terrified to make the journey after dark.