Bush's Man in Baghdad

Retired Army Lieutenant General Jay M. Garner knows firsthand the ethnic rivalries that plague Iraq. After the first Gulf War ended in 1991, he was the top U.S. military official in the north, overseeing the resettlement of Kurds. An uprising against Saddam Hussein had failed, and thousands of Kurds made a beeline to the mountains, fearing reprisals by Iraqi troops despite the establishment of an autonomous Kurdish zone.

Garner coaxed them back down by persuading Saddam's troops to withdraw, then turning the northern town of Zakhu into a tent-filled way station to provide food, water, medicine, and a free ride home. At one tense point in Operation Provide Comfort, Garner had to face down well-armed Kurdish guerrillas preying on fellow Kurds in an attempt to impose their own rule. Garner managed to talk his way out of this and many other tight spots -- and, according to press reports at the time, was even carried on the shoulders of one thankful group of refugees, like a coach whose team had just won the big game.

All that should soon come in plenty handy. Garner, a close friend of Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, is about to burst on the Iraq scene again. Only this time, the press-shy, 38-year veteran has been tapped by President George W. Bush to run the entire country as the top civilian under General Tommy R. Franks. Once Saddam is ousted, Garner, as head of the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction & Humanitarian Assistance, will oversee everything from distributing food and medicine to pumping oil to purging Saddam loyalists from the ruling Baath Party. It's a job that could once again make him a local hero -- or frustrate the U.S. as it tries to show a skeptical world that its botched prewar diplomacy won't mean a botched postwar peace. Already, critics worry that Garner's ties to Israel could make him the wrong man to run the show in Iraq.

Garner, 64, is stepping into what may prove to be the toughest job on earth. He will attempt to make a functioning civil society out of the tatters of Iraq's institutions. He has a plan to achieve this -- but he's not willing to go public. And while Garner has sought to calm the fears of nongovernmental organizations and U.N. programs that they will be cut out of the action, he is unwilling to share details with them either. He would not comment for this story.

National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice and others have made it clear that Garner's role is to pave the way for an interim Iraqi authority to take over many government functions as quickly as possible. Garner will immediately divide the country into three regions, each with its own American civilian leader reporting to him. He'll also name three other assistants -- one each for reconstruction, civil administration, and humanitarian assistance. Another early task: appointing an advisory council of Iraqi expats and other technocrats who stayed behind but show no loyalty to Saddam.

While Garner is widely admired for his work with the Kurds, he has his critics. Michael Young, a leading columnist in Lebanon who writes often about Islamic issues, says Muslims are suspicious of Garner because of his strong ties to Israel. It's easy to see why. In 2000, Garner signed a statement by the conservative Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, praising Israel for its handling of the Palestinian intifada. And as president of SY Technology, a unit of L-3 Communications Holdings Inc., Garner worked closely with Israeli security to develop its Arrow missile-defense system. "There is the problem of credibility if you have someone who can be tagged as [Zionist]," says Young.

Credibility was a problem after the first Gulf conflict, too. Part of Garner's job then was to deploy the Patriot missile to protect Israelis against incoming Iraqi Scuds. While he told a skeptical Congress that the Patriot was effective, Defense officials many years later pronounced it a dud. This time, Garner won't be able to sugarcoat events. His success or failure will be on display for the entire world to see.

By Paula Dwyer in Washington and Laura Cohn in Doha, Qatar

    Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.