WASHINGTON – A massive U.S.-led humanitarian response is poised to enter Iraq once the war has finished to undertake the job of rebuilding the embattled Persian Gulf nation, which is expected to take significantly longer than the war itself.
Experts describe a complex web of U.S. and international aid, and plans for civil, political and physical restructuring that will spring into action as soon as the smoke clears and Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein is removed from power.
"Post-conflict reconstruction in Iraq is going to be a multi-faceted affair," said Eric Schwartz, who left the National Security Council in 2001 as special assistant to the president for multilateral and humanitarian affairs.
Once security of Iraq is ensured, with U.S. troops stationed in the country for an indefinite time, the United States will help establish an interim government, Schwartz said. President Bush announced last week that retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner will head the Pentagon’s new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance.
Garner’s office will oversee several teams led by civilian workers who will unleash billions of dollars for crisis intervention and rebuilding, according to the Pentagon.
This will in large part take place under the auspices of the U.S. Agency for International Development, which has already begun the process of lining up millions of dollars in emergency supplies, medicine and food for the Iraqi people in warehouses throughout the region, according to officials there.
Michael Kiernan, a spokesman for Save the Children, said his organization is ready to act the minute it is given the go-ahead to proceed into the country for disaster relief. They expect to receive funding from USAID, and already have operations in Kuwait, Turkey and Jordan. Their first move will be to establish refugee camps inside Iraq as soon as the bombing ceases.
"Initially, we will be doing the basic relief work – providing food, shelter, medicine, medical care," then the more long-term care of the children, Kiernan said. "We will hire teachers, daycare operators, people who have experience with children."
Joe Siegle, a fellow at the Council on Foreign Relations who in the last decade has worked for aid groups in war-torn areas like Bosnia, Asia and Africa, said non-governmental organizations like Save the Children are the "foot soldiers" in the first response.
"The first stages will be getting in there, getting your needs assessments, identifying the areas that are hardest hit," he said.
After that, American companies are expected to take the lead in repairing the structural damage done by the bombing, as well as help rehabilitate the substandard infrastructure of the nation, which is necessary for getting Iraq back on its feet economically.
"You have many people who don’t have food or medical attention, or education, because those systems were already broken down before the war," Siegle said. "You need to correct the dysfunctions in the existing systems."
According to reports, five companies, including Halliburton, formerly led by Vice President Dick Cheney, and Bechtel Group, have placed bids at the behest of the administration to accomplish the massive reconstruction effort.
Jonathan Marshall, a spokesman for Bechtel, said the company has experience in rebuilding airfields, power plants, roads, schools and other civilian infrastructure. In the 1991 Persian Gulf War, it helped to put out oil fires in Kuwait, an effort that involved 10,000 people, he said.
"We’ve done an extraordinary amount of civil infrastructure projects – in that sense, we’re a natural to consider," for a piece of the $900 million in U.S. contracts expected to be doled out, he said.
There has been some concern that the U.S. will charge forward with the rebuilding of Iraq with little international cooperation. The concerns come in the wake of a diplomatic struggle that led to the lack of United Nations support for the invasion of Iraq.
"The big issue as far as I am concerned is how much are we going to internationalize this," said Retired Army Gen. Bill Nash, who commanded the armored brigade in Desert Storm, and led U.S. troops into Bosnia after the Dayton accords. He also served as regional U.N. administrator in Kosovo, and encourages cooperation with the United Nations in future operations in Iraq.
"You have to have a strong military for security and stability and then you have to have a strong civilian body that looks at all of the issues for nation-building," he said. "We need to cooperate with other people and we don’t seem to like to do that."
But the tone of the White House and Department of Defense indicates that the U.S. doesn’t plan to go it alone. USAID has insisted that it has been working with international relief organizations, including U.N. agencies, from the beginning. And American companies are likely to subcontract with foreign companies in the region for reconstruction, officials said.
"We’re hoping the U.S. and the U.N. will cooperate and mount the most effective response possible," said Kiernan. "We can’t sit around complaining, we need to get in there."
On Wednesday, U.S. and British officials announced that they are drafting a plan to use $40 billion in Iraqi oil proceeds from the U.N. oil-for-food program to help in the humanitarian relief effort after the war. The money is in a U.N.-controlled account and would not be accessed directly by U.S. and British officials.
On Thursday, British Prime Minister Tony Blair reiterated that commitment to directing the money to the Iraqis.
"Our commitment to the post-Saddam humanitarian effort will be total. We shall help Iraq move towards democracy, and put the money from Iraqi oil in a U.N. trust fund so that it benefits Iraq and no-one else," Blair said in a message to his nation announcing U.K. troops are headed into combat.
The Bush administration has not released any comprehensive numbers on how much the rebuilding will cost, but is likely in the next few days to formally request supplemental funding to the 2003 budget now that the war has begun. Money for rebuilding Iraq is expected to be included in that request.
Siegle said he does not expect the physical rebuilding to take long – perhaps one or two years. The long haul will be in fostering democracy in a country that has been crippled by a dictatorship.
"The hardest thing is to change the institutions, the people issues," he said. "I think the political process is going to take substantially longer."