Congress to Pentagon: Iraq Is All Yours

Last week, the U.S. military consolidated its hold on the capital from which it would rule Iraq.

The capital in question is not Baghdad, but Washington, where a pitched battle was fought over a supplemental appropriations bill to pay for the Iraq war and its aftermath.

Although Congress readily appropriated $62.6 billion for Iraq military operations and $2.4 billion for post-war relief and reconstruction, the original House and Senate bills prohibited the $2.4 billion from being channeled through the Pentagon.

This upset the White House. It strong-armed Congress to remove this restriction. Rather than place U.S. funding for post-war administration of 24 million Iraqis under the control of the State Department and Colin Powell, who advocates a greater role for the United Nations and civilian authorities, the White House wants the Defense Department and Donald Rumsfeld to be in charge.

What would a Pentagon-run civil administration look like for the Iraqi people? Last week we got a preview.

On Apr. 6, the U.S. military flew Ahmed Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress (INC) and 700 of his self-styled militia into Nasiriyah to begin political operations. In 1992 Chalabi was sentenced in absentia by a Jordanian court to 22 years in prison with hard labor for bank fraud. According to a recent CIA report, his group has little credibility inside Iraq.

"The only following Chalabi has in Iraq is the U.S. military," former U.S. ambassador to Saudi Arabia James E. Akins told The New York Times recently. Nonetheless, Chalabi and some 40 hand-picked Iraqi politicians are expected to take part in U.S. talks on the future of Iraq.

Last Tuesday, a team of officials from the Pentagon's newly established Office for Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance arrived in the southern port of Umm Qasr. The White House wants ORHA, headed by an ex-defense contractor, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, to run civil affairs in postwar Iraq.

Initially, Congress opposed a Pentagon-led cabal. But over the weekend the House-Senate conference bowed to White House demands and decided to allow Iraq relief and reconstruction funds to be channeled through the Pentagon.

But what sort of legitimacy will ORHA have in Iraq? How far will the White House go to roll or otherwise defy congressional concerns and international consensus to make a U.S. military-run interim authority a fait accompli?

It had allies in war, but the United States is utterly isolated in its bid to control the peace. Virtually every foreign leader, including Tony Blair, strongly opposes even short-term U.S. rule over Iraq and supports a central U.N. role.

So do Republican and Democratic congressional leaders. Senators Joseph Biden and Chuck Hagel recently wrote: "The best way to build [international] legitimacy is by involving our key allies and international organizations – starting with the United Nations – in securing and rebuilding Iraq."

The United Nations is best suited to coordinate the rebuilding of Iraq and facilitate the establishment of an interim Iraqi authority. Unlike the Pentagon, it has widely recognized international legitimacy in relief and reconstruction, extensive resources and expertise and a long history of working with Iraqi civil servants and NGOs. It is infinitely better placed than White House or Defense Department proxies to create conditions for transition to elections and representative government in Iraq.

Lacking an obvious Mandela-caliber leader, Iraq's democratic transition will not be easy. But short-circuiting it by transferring power from the U.S. military to Pentagon-picked exiles is not the answer; it neither legitimately expresses Iraqi sovereignty nor helps repair damaged U.S. alliances.

It will more likely become a lightning rod for Iraqi and international cynicism, fuel doubts about U.S. motives, deepen rifts with our allies, infuriate the Arab World, feed terrorism and further destabilize the Middle East.

Such damage to U.S. security interests aside, expanded U.S. military occupation and intervention into Iraqi civil and political affairs also will exacerbate the humanitarian crisis threatening to engulf Iraq. Already alarming, the situation will only worsen without strong, effective U.N. authority.

Fifty-two leading American relief and human rights organizations signed a congressional letter arguing "humanitarian aid is most effectively delivered by civilian humanitarian agencies under U.N. leadership. ...Military involvement can compromise the effective delivery of aid and lead to unintended consequences, potentially threatening the security of civilian aid workers."

Though consensus around this is well established, the White House is not honoring it. Thwarting the people's will on reconstruction as expressed by American citizens, non-governmental organizations and the international community is an inauspicious way to promote democracy in Iraq.

Erik Gustafson, a Gulf War veteran, is executive director of the Education for Peace in Iraq Center (www.epic-usa.org).

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