WASHINGTON – When Jay Garner prepared to leave Iraq 12 years ago, Kurdish refugees hoisted him on their shoulders like a sports hero. Their children drew pictures to thank the U.S. major general for all he did in the post-Gulf War effort to aid displaced Kurds.
The pictures, neatly framed now, are proudly displayed on the walls of Garner's corporate offices in Arlington, Va. But Garner himself is a world away, poised to re-enter Iraq with a far more difficult task ahead.
As director of the Pentagon's new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, Garner has set up temporary quarters at a seaside resort in Kuwait City to oversee the enormous job of speeding relief to the people of Iraq.
And should the United States oust Saddam Hussein and take control of Iraq, Garner is to be the civil administrator who temporarily oversees the country until a new Iraqi leader takes charge, a transition that Garner hopes will take only a few months.
"There's just literally thousands of things that have to be considered," said retired Air Force Gen. Charles Horner, who led the air campaign during the 1991 Persian Gulf War. "It's a far more important operation than the combat operation to remove Saddam because this will determine the outcome of what we do."
For now, Garner is essentially presiding over a government-in-waiting. Other than a brief trip over the border to the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr this week, Garner and his team have spent the last two weeks holed up in a Kuwaiti villa on the shores of the Persian Gulf hashing out plans for the work to come.
The blue sea, white sands and thatched umbrellas nearby sit unused as Garner's team huddles under extraordinary security, gas masks strapped to their hips.
Garner, 64, gets strong marks for his 1991 work on Operation Provide Comfort, when he commanded the allied force that moved into northern Iraq to protect hundreds of thousands of Kurdish refugees who fled their homes after Saddam crushed a Kurdish rebellion at the end of the Persian Gulf War.
When the troops pulled out, Garner was the last man to cross over the Habur River into Turkey after watching as the U.S. flag was lowered over the Iraqi army compound that had been allied headquarters.
"We're just a phone call away," Garner promised then.
John Fawcett, who worked for a relief group in northern Iraq then, said Garner's record gives him credibility with Saddam's foes and a better idea of the problems he's sure to face.
"He's seen 100,000 people on the ground in the camps in desperate situations," said Fawcett. "He's going to know what it takes to help people."
Garner, a retired lieutenant general who served two tours in Vietnam, is widely described as a smart yet practical leader. A "make-it-happen guy," in the words of retired Lt. Gen. Ted Stroup, who has known him for decades.
Still, Garner's operation is eyed with some suspicion by relief organizations.
"They see it as a sign that the Pentagon is going to be taking over relief operations," said Refugees International President Ken Bacon, himself a former Pentagon spokesman. He added that the Pentagon and Garner himself did little to dispel that impression, refusing to meet relief organizations before leaving Washington or to testify before a Senate committee.
Secretary of State Colin Powell tried to refute those criticisms Thursday, saying efforts to set up interim Iraqi leadership would be undertaken while relief operations are underway, "so that the people of Iraq can very quickly see that their own representatives are moving into positions of authority."
"Responsibility will be passed to them to make decisions about the future of Iraq," Powell said during a news conference in Brussels with the NATO secretary general.
Garner has other challenges to surmount as well. Among them: the bleak humanitarian situation in Iraq, where 60 percent of the population is dependent on U.N. food programs; turf disagreements between State and Defense department officials over who should do what; and sentiment among many outside the United States that the United Nations should have a stronger role in establishing a post-Saddam government.
British Prime Minister Tony Blair, one of America's staunchest allies on the war effort, said Wednesday that postwar transitional arrangements and the Iraqi interim authority should be U.N.-endorsed.
Garner has kept a low profile since Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld pulled him from the president's office at SYColeman Corp., a defense contractor, in January and asked him to lead the new Pentagon operation.
But he can be outspoken and tenacious in defending his positions.
As an Army major general in 1994, Garner bitterly criticized the F-22 fighter jet, a rare instance of a military official attacking another service's weapon program.
"In that case he probably issued an opinion before he got his brain engaged," says Horner, who nonetheless thinks Garner is well-suited to his new job. "His strong suit is his ability to administrate, to get disparate people headed in the same direction."
Former Sen. Malcolm Wallop of Wyoming, who served with Garner on a space advisory commission chaired by Rumsfeld before he became President Bush's secretary of defense, says Garner was "never in anybody's face but he always had a point of view that was useful."
"He's one of those people who got where they got not by being a flash but a solid intellect and administrator," Wallop said.
Retired Col. Keith Skidmore, who worked for Garner both in the military and at SYColeman, described him as a "warrior" in his professional life who is nonetheless low key on a personal level.
"He will make you feel like you're his best friend in about 15 minutes," Skidmore said.