The man who will rule Iraq

It is probably most accurate to call him Iraq’s president-elect. The moment President Saddam Hussein falls, Jay Garner will take over, with the kind of sweeping power over the whole of Iraq that even Saddam has been unable to exercise for the past few years.

When the name Garner was announced as the United States’s intended interim ruler six weeks ago, it seemed relatively uncontroversial.

After all, it was clear someone would have to do the job.
Here was a retired general, highly regarded in the services and with a track record of involvement in humanitarian work in the region, being dragged reluctantly from his retirement when his country called.

But as the weeks have gone by, the choice looks to be yet another misjudgement from a Pentagon leadership that has misjudged rather a lot.

At present Garner is sitting in Kuwait, waiting for the US military to declare some areas sufficiently pacific for his team to start work. For the past fortnight the Iraqi interim authority has had the formal sanction of the Bush administration. But its plans remain mysterious.

Meanwhile, arguments swirl around him — between the state and defence departments, and between the US and the United Nations. There is no argument among Arab opinion formers, who with rare unanimity have been condemning his appointment as another sign of US contempt for Iraqi feelings.

Among those who actually know him, no one seems to have a bad word for Garner. Now 64, he retired six years ago as a three-star general, having made his reputation most spectacularly after the 1991 Gulf War when he was in charge of the Kurdish areas in the north, and won the confidence of the thousands of Kurds who had fled into the mountains to escape Saddam’s forces. Former colleagues recall him as a brave decision-maker (“He wouldn’t dodge bullets, he’d bite them,” in the words of General Thomas McInerney) and a humane, informal and humorous man.

But three facts have come to haunt his mission before it even starts. One is the general’s work since retiring from the army as president of defence contractor SY Coleman, now part of a communications-led outfit called L3.

An L3 spokesperson insisted that Garner’s firm does not make military hardware but specialises in the guidance systems. In other words, he is the man who has been trying to make sure the weapons hit the targets rather than the surrounding civilians.

This may be true, but this might require an over-subtle explanation in the Baghdad souks if Iraqis start to believe they are being ruled by a man who was just trying to kill them.

The second problem concerns his links with Israel. In October 2000 Garner went on what seems to have been a routine 10-day freebie to Israel, organised by the Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs. Afterwards, the general signed a declaration of support for Israeli policy, at a time when the latest outbreak of Palestinian unrest was just under way.

Commentators across the Arab world are aghast at the insensitivity involved in his appointment. “It sends completely the wrong signal,” said Ibrahim Hooper of the Council on American-Islamic Relations.

“From the perspective of the Muslim and Arab world, it is inappropriate to have someone who has exhibited strong pro-Israel sentiments as the veritable ruler of Iraq. It will be seen as confirming the sense that it is not a war of liberation but a war to promote the state of Israel.’’

In Washington a diplomatic battle has broken out about whether relief for Iraq should be controlled by Colin Powell’s State Department or the Pentagon. Powell’s allies regard Garner, appointed by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld, as someone whose motives will inevitably be regarded as tainted in postwar Iraq.

It now seems incredible that any American could easily win the confidence of the Iraqis and win a reputation as a wise and generous ruler. “A lot of us are quite astonished,” one UN source said. ‘“We would have thought the US would have wanted to spread the responsibility around. His appointment seems to be part of the early thinking that they were going to be garlanded with rose petals.’’ — Â

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