Rumors of War: The Way Some Civilian Leaders Talk, a Showdown with Iraq Is All but Inevitable. That Has the Brass Worried. the Road to Baghdad Begins with a Battle in Washington

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Byline: John Barry and Roy Gutman

The "Future Of Iraq Project" is holding its second two-day working session this week at the State Department. Participants will enthusiastically sketch out their plans for running Iraq after Saddam Hussein is gone. At the first session, in July, a group of 10 Iraqi exiles and a few Western observers debated issues of "transitional justice": reforming the courts, ending police abuses and looking at amnesty for some rights violators. This week's theme is "public finance," things like eradicating corruption, restoring Iraq's international credit rating and finding and taking back the billions allegedly stolen by Saddam and his sons. Everyone involved agrees the talks are a splendid idea. "We should have done this years ago," says a European diplomat.

There's just one problem. Saddam isn't cooperating. Despite the Bush administration's repeated vows to remove the Iraqi dictator, and despite the "battle plans" slathered across the pages of The New York Times in recent weeks, no one in Washington knows how to get him out. Bush keeps demanding that U.S. military planners give him more options, but they have delivered nothing but staff college exercises--and "second rate" stuff at that, says a military source who has seen it. The brass are understandably reluctant to send insufficient troops into a battlefield as challenging as Iraq. But more than that, they can't possibly plan an invasion until the political leaders tell them a few basic things like where the soldiers can be based and which countries will permit overflights. And those questions are easy next to the real monster: what happens after Saddam is out?

There's no clear answer. Even if by some miracle a strong democratic leader were to emerge, the country's basic institutions are hopelessly compromised--and no such miracle seems to be in the works. This week the exiled leaders of six dissident groups will try formulating a political platform. The most prominent of them, Ahmed Chalabi, has the backing of congressional conservatives and civilian hawks at the Pentagon, but he has few friends elsewhere. The CIA refuses to work with him. The State Department, which was providing support to his Iraqi National Council under a 1998 mandate, has finally run out of patience with his fast-and-loose accounting practices. Now the Pentagon is taking his intelligence operation under its wing, but no one expects him to stay out of mischief.

So far the big battles are in Washington, not Baghdad. Secretary of State Colin Powell, the only combat veteran among Bush's senior aides, is said to be determined that if U.S. troops are committed, they go in with overwhelming force. Vice President Dick Cheney (who had student and parent deferments during Vietnam) and Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld (a Navy pilot in the years between Korea and Vietnam) are eager to finish the job Bush's father started when he was president. And they seem to think they can do it with far fewer troops than U.S. military leaders would like. By Rumsfeld's orders, even the Joint Chiefs of Staff have been shut out of the planning process--a decision that has only added to the generals' unhappiness. …