- The Washington Times - Tuesday, January 6, 2004

Last October, in a now famous memo to his senior subordinates, Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld posed the question “Are we winning or losing the global war on terror?” That same question applies to Iraq. Are we winning or losing the battleto stabilizeand democratizeIraq? And, if the answeris negative, what can be done to reverse that?

The Bush administration argues that, despite the prospect of “a long hard slog,” it is winning both battles in Iraq. The administration believes the insurgency is slowly being dampened down. While virtually none of the $18.7 billion reconstruction package has been spent yet, and it will take time for the money to take effect, the administration believes time is on its side.

In recent correspondence, Ambassador L. Paul Bremer, head of the Coalition ProvisionalAuthority (CPA), has glowingly reported progress. Of particular pride are 17,000 individual construction projects completed in the past six months. While there may be internal disagreements inside the administration over strategy and timetables for Iraq’s physical and political reconstruction, Mr. Bremer remains optimistic. So, too, does the president.

The negative reports on Iraq come largely from the press and e-mail. Many of the negative e-mails originate from inside the CPA or from visitors sent over to observe and report back. The criticisms come on three fronts.

First is the failure of the Iraqi Governing Council to connect with Iraqis and be viewed as a legitimate, competent body in moving the country toward a functioning government. The IGC is isolated from the public at large, in part, because of the threat of assassination. One memberoftheIGC,awomannamedAkila Hashimi, was assassinated last year.

Second is the difficulty in creating a cohesive and functioning Iraqi society when there has been none for decades. Obviously, security is a huge problem. The insurgency is not lessening even after capture of Saddam Hussein. And insurgents have increasingly targeted Iraqi civilians, as well as coalition forces.

Third is delay in awarding and spending the reconstruction funds. Prompted by allegations of favoritism in assigning contracts to Halliburton,formerly chaired by Vice President Dick Cheney and Bechtel, and further allegations of overcharging and fraud, the White House shifted contracting oversight from the CPA to the Army Corps of Engineers. Mr. Bremer was advised last year that it would take at least nine months before contracts and funding would begin producing visible results. That lag period could now last a year or more, depending upon how quickly the oversight authority can be transferred and contracts let.

Of course, the administration could be correct, in that time is on its side. Its general strategy, just becoming more visible, probably will go like this:

• Continuefightingthe insurgency with the expectation that over time, it will be beaten back to a level that can be contained by the newly created Iraqi security forces.

• Transfer political authority to a provisional government by mid-summer and replace the CPA and Pentagon control with a large diplomatic presence headed by an ambassador of great ability and prestige, under Secretary of State Colin Powell.

Mr. Powell’s role will provide a crucial political buffer. With the pending November elections, Iraq could be the single largest issue on which voters will choose the next president, and it will be a lightning rod for Democratic attacks. Mr.Powell gives the White House political insulation and cover as he did in making the case to go to war last year.

The administration’s plan could work. However, there is an equally strong case that time is against us. If time is running out, what should the administration be doing differently?

First, the IGC’s credibility must be quickly strengthened. Despite the risk of political failure, that can only be accomplished by sending a presidential envoy of great prominence,such as the vice president or secretary of state, to Baghdad to win agreement with the IGC on a workable and very public plan for this transition.

Second, repairing divisions among Iraqi society is not helped by divided command between CPA and Central Command. Command must be unified under one person. Waiting until July may be too late, although it will be easier to take that step after political power is transferred to Iraq.

Finally, the reconstruction funds must be “fast-tracked.” Delay is simply unacceptable. Iraqis must see faster progress in rebuilding their country, even if this means playing by local rather than Americanprocurement rules and accepting the risk of greater waste, fraud and abuse by setting urgency above perfect auditing.

Iraq is burning. Putting the fire out now will be far cheaper than waiting until it is too late even if all of the money is not spent as wisely as we would like.

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