WASHINGTON - What a difference a year can make. If you don't believe it, ask Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz.
A year ago, testifying before Congress, Wolfowitz predicted that securing postwar Iraq would be an easier job than the United States and its allies faced in Bosnia or Afghanistan. After all, the deputy secretary said, there's no ethnic tension in Iraq.
The immediate reaction of virtually everyone who knew even a little bit about Iraq and its long-simmering tensions, repression, bloodshed and just plain bad blood among Kurds and Turkomen in the north, Sunni Arabs in the middle and Shiite Muslims in the south, was: Say what?
Not since President Ford prematurely declared Soviet-dominated Poland a free country has a public official stuck his foot so deeply and so publicly in his mouth.
Wolfowitz visited Iraq early this month and, at a meeting in the northern city of Kirkuk, he got a long, painful ear pounding on the subject of tension and fear among the country's ethnic groups.
The Sunni Arabs complained that they were being abused and mistreated by the Kurds. The Shia made it clear that the only thing would satisfy them - the long-oppressed majority in this nation of 25 million people - was free and open elections, which they would, of course, win. Other Iraqis complained that local militias, who owe no loyalty to the central government, are intimidating and frightening people.
Central Intelligence Agency officers in Baghdad Station have reported to the home office their own fears that Iraq is on a "glide path to civil war."
The Department of Defense, which is to say Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld, is skinning back the U.S. force in Iraq from 130,000-plus today to 105,000 by late spring, when the current round of troop rotations ends. However many soldiers and Marines we have in Iraq, they could end up in the crossfire of a civil war.
Rumsfeld and his key aides, meanwhile, are running for cover.
In one recent high-level meeting, Rumsfeld looked at Secretary of State Colin Powell and said, "Jerry (Ambassador Paul Bremer, the top U.S. civilian in Iraq) works for you, right?"
Powell looked as if he'd been struck by lightning. Bremer and every other U.S. official in Iraq reports directly to Rumsfeld and the Pentagon. Rumsfeld demanded and got complete authority over the military, over the civilian authority in charge of rebuilding the country, over the administration's $87 billion Iraq budget, over every line of every contract let. And suddenly he forgot that Bremer works for him?
That same week, Wolfowitz and Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage were summoned to a closed-door session of the Senate Armed Services Committee to discuss how the U.S. contracting system is working in Iraq.
When Wolfowitz was asked a tough question about the controversies surrounding the U.S. contracting efforts in Iraq, he turned to Armitage and said: "You can answer that one, right, Rich?" Armitage answered by noting that the Department of Defense and the Office of the Secretary of Defense control every American contract let in Iraq, and that the State Department has authority over none of those contracts.
"Iraq is now a contaminated environment and Rumsfeld and his people want out," said one senior administration official. "They can't wait for July 1 when the CPA (Bremer's Coalition Provisional Authority) turns into the U.S. Embassy and the whole mess they have made becomes Colin Powell's."
The only question is whether Rumsfeld and Company can keep the lid on all the boiling pots until they can pass the CPA and the whole nation-rebuilding buck to the State Department.
The investigations and audits of Halliburton's and Halliburton subsidiaries' alleged contract overcharges, with their uncomfortable proximity to Vice President Dick Cheney, Halliburton's former chief, are just the tip of the iceberg.
The real action, knowledgeable American officials say, is in local contracts that are being let under authority of the ruling Iraqi Governing Council. U.S. officials say some less savory Council members are demanding kickbacks on some contracts in hopes of investing the ill-gotten gains in buying or bending the selection of local and regional councils who will help choose a new government and bolstering their own distant hopes of holding onto power.
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