By Mark Thompson
The last time Jay Garner was in Iraq, the locals begged him to stay.
That was in 1991, in the aftermath of the Gulf War, when almost 8,000 U.S. servicemen and -women were still occupying the northern part of the country. Garner was in charge of providing a safe haven for thousands of Iraqi Kurds after Saddam Hussein brutally suppressed their postwar rebellion.
In June 1991, with an uneasy peace in place, the Americans began pulling out. In the city of Dohuk, 1,500 Kurds surrounded then Major General Garner's headquarters. "No, no, Saddam!" they chanted. "Yes, yes, Bush!" Then they hoisted a surprised Garner on their shoulders.
Garner did not tell them, "I shall return," but return he has, and not just to the Kurdish regions of the north. In January the affable Garner, who retired from the Army six years ago, was plucked from civilian life by his old friend Donald Rumsfeld to head the Pentagon's new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance. To put it another way, Garner will become the de facto ruler of Iraq.
For now, Garner and his operation are a government-in-waiting--a few hundred former generals, aid workers and diplomats standing by in Kuwait, awaiting Saddam's defeat.
Once that happens, they will cross the border to become the nerve center of postwar Iraq. Advance teams are ready to move in as early as this week. Garner plans to establish three administrative centers--in Baghdad, Mosul and Basra--that will supervise humanitarian relief and reconstruction, keep the oil flowing, purge Saddam loyalists from Iraqi government agencies and set in motion the most difficult of U.S. war aims: the establishment of democratic institutions in a country that has never known them.
Friends describe Garner, 64, as rumpled and genial, a man who insists on being called Jay, not General. But no one doubts that in postwar Iraq he will be the man to see. "He's wholly informal," says a co-worker in Washington. "But if you deviate from the program, he says, 'Listen, this is the way it's going to be; now get it done.'"
Garner will need all his charm and resolve to referee the tug-of-war between the departments of Defense and State for influence over the reconstruction process.
In addition, some international relief organizations are balking at the idea of working under military supervision. Garner reports directly to General Tommy Franks, so his outfit is essentially an arm of the Pentagon.
Some in the Arab world are dismayed by Garner's selection. They note that in October 2000, soon after the start of the latest Palestinian uprising, Garner signed a statement blaming Yasser Arafat's Palestinian Authority for orchestrating the violence.
The statement had been prepared by the Washington-based Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs, which had earlier paid to take Garner and other U.S. officers to Israel for security briefings. In civilian life Garner was president of SYColeman, a defense contractor that helped Israel develop its Arrow missile-defense system.
In a meeting two weeks ago with a group of Kuwaiti businessmen and academics, Garner said he would judge the success of his operation by how quickly he could turn power back to the Iraqis. He has said he hoped it might take only 90 days. But after a war that has not gone quite as rapidly or as smoothly as planned, peace may not proceed on the fast track either.
--By Mark Thompson, with reporting by Terry McCarthy/Kuwait City
Copyright © 2003 Time Inc.