In Washington, the Battle For Baghdad Heats Up

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The battle for Baghdad took a big step forward when U.S. soldiers took the city's airport Friday. The battle for Baghdad's future continues in Washington

As U.S. forces move to envelope Baghdad in a vise grip, a second battle for Baghdad rages off-camera, sometimes with equal ferocity: The struggle to determine by whom, and under what authority, Iraq will be governed once the coalition pulls the plug on Saddam Hussein's regime. Defense Secretary Don Rumsfeld is reportedly urging President Bush to install a "provisional government" of Iraqi exiles who "share the president's objectives for a free Iraq." The U.S. may not even wait for Saddam's ouster; Joint Chiefs of Staff Chairman General Richard Myers said Thursday that rather than fight street-by-street for the capital, coalition forces may simply isolate Iraq's ruler and his loyalists and allow an interim authority to begin governing the country.

Who will rule a post-Saddam Iraq? The hawkish civilians who run the Pentagon have long championed the claims of Ahmed Chalabi of the exiled Iraqi National Congress. Putting Iraqis in charge, the hawks argue, will offset international criticism that the U.S. is out to colonize the country and jumpstart the transition to Iraqi democracy by bypassing the question of whether the U.S. or the UN should take charge in Baghdad. But the State Department and the CIA are deeply suspicious of Chalabi. They question his claim to have popular support inside Iraq, and warn against preempting the Iraqis' choosing their own new leaders and installing a group viewed with considerable skepticism in the Arab world. Britain is also urging a speedy transition to an interim government. But its proposal is radically different from Rumsfeld's — it envisages such a government emerging out of a UN-sponsored convention of all of Iraq's political and social leadership once Saddam is ousted."

The Pentagon hawks note that Chalabi has said he would recognize Israel, an indication, they say, that this is an Iraqi who shares President Bush's vision of the Middle East. Detractors warn that a rush to embrace Israel would be the kiss of death for any new Iraqi administration. After all, Saddam's own propaganda has been based on telling Iraqis they're being invaded in the interests of Israel's security. Even without Saddam, there's no reason to expect that Iraqis' view of Israel would be substantially different from that which prevails in the rest of the Arab world.

Until now, the Pentagon's working plan for managing a post-Saddam Iraq has been to put the country under the overall control of the U.S. military, which would maintain Iraq's security and territorial integrity. The U.S. military, through a civil administration headed up by retired general Jay Garner, would also take on the responsibilities of day-to-day civilian government, in preparation for an eventual hand-over to a democratic Iraqi administration. The de facto government would be Garner's administration, whose ministries would be headed by U.S. civilian appointees advised by handpicked Iraqis, including Chalabi and some close to him.

Chalabi and his supporters, however, were irked at being confined to an advisory role, and have continued to agitate for a provisional government under their control. His patrons in the Defense Department have reportedly been waging a parallel fight over the identity of the U.S. administrators-in-waiting. Senior Defense Department officials have reportedly nixed a number of State Department nominees. And the bureaucratic infighting is about a lot more than personalities or turf battles. It goes to the core of the war aims.

The Shape of the New Middle East

The Pentagon ideologues and their allies in the administration have always conceived of the war in Iraq as the beginning of a drive to comprehensively remake the politics of the Middle East. By bringing democracy to Iraq and tilting it toward the West, they hope to launch a process that challenges the authoritarianism and extremism that nurtures terrorism and hostility to the West and Israel in countries ranging from Egypt and Saudi Arabia to Syria and Iran. They are, by and large, strong supporters not only of Israel, but of the hard-line policies of Prime Minister Ariel Sharon, and they argue that winning Washington's own war on terrorism requires a long-term reengineering of Arab societies.

To the "realists" in the State Department and other sections of the bureaucracy, those are dangerous ideas, potentially plunging an entire region into bloody chaos, bringing down longtime allies and pitting the U.S. against the entire Arab world. They see the war on Iraq in far more limited terms, and their overriding concern is to ensure stability in the region.

The Bush administration's battle over the staffing of an interim administration is only part of the wider debate over how to replace Saddam. The primary concern of the allies that have joined the U.S. in sending forces to Iraq — Britain and Australia — is to give the United Nations ultimate authority over rebuilding the country. Tony Blair would have a hard time keeping his troops in Iraq unless the occupation was legally sanctioned by UN resolution. But he has not yet managed convince President Bush, and after the two men met at Camp David last week, Blair acknowledged that Britain and the U.S. have different views on the issue.

For Blair, it's a legal issue — his government would struggle to find a legal basis on which to accept, let alone take part in, the running of Iraq as a de facto U.S. protectorate. But it's also a political question. The Prime Minister has pointedly distanced his government from the wider neo-conservative agenda, insisting that the U.S. must do more to bring Israel into compliance with UN resolutions and rejecting Defense Secretary Rumsfeld's threats to Syria and Iran. Having gone to war on the principle of upholding international legality, the British public is unlikely to embrace the argument offered by Secretary of State Powell on Thursday that the coalition's willingness to go to war against Saddam should give it the dominant say over Iraq's immediate future.

What About the UN?

The U.S. has accepted an as-yet undefined role for the UN in managing a post-Saddam Iraq. Officials suggest the international body could coordinate humanitarian assistance, for example. That much may be a financial and legal necessity for the Bush administration. Currently, legal control over Iraqi oil revenues is in the hands of the United Nations "oil-for-food" program. Indeed, Washington last week went back to the Security Council to seek authorization for an urgent resumption of the program, putting Secretary General Kofi Annan in charge of the funds and authorizing him to spend them on urgent humanitarian needs. (And the Security Council's speedy and unanimous acquiescence suggests a willingness to restore transatlantic cooperation, despite sharp differences over whether the UN or the U.S. should have authority over post-Saddam Iraq.)

UN officials warn that Iraqi oil revenues will cover only a small fraction of the cost of rebuilding Iraq, and Washington is hoping to persuade European countries to contribute generously. But EU officials say that while Europe would be willing to channel such aid through a UN authority, it would not fund an administration installed by the U.S.

European and British concerns are unlikely to be assuaged by the installation of a government staffed by Iraqis, because their primary concern — shared by the skeptics at State and elsewhere in Washington — is that the viability of any new authority depends on the extent to which it enjoys national, regional and international legitimacy. That, they argue, requires UN supervision of the processes of electing a new leadership and drafting a new constitution. Against that, the hawks will argue that tying up the transition in the inevitably fractious UN process will simply delay the emergence of a democratic, post-Saddam Iraq.

We've Been Here Before

As the prospect of victory draws closer, President Bush returns to a familiar dilemma. The advice he's getting from those in his administration who advocated for and authored this war is once again strongly at odds with the counsel offered by those who have been more inclined toward caution. And the President's choices may determine whether after beating Saddam, the U.S. wins the peace.