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By John Hanchette

OLEAN -- On a winter Friday and Saturday in February, at the National Defense University near the Potomac River in Washington, about 200 federal officials from several Cabinet agencies and intelligence bureaus gathered to rehearse.

What they were rehearsing may end up being more important than any of the combat actions in Iraq you've been watching on TV. It was what to do in a post-Saddam Iraq once the firing died down.

"We had a rehearsal that was very intense, lasted two days, went over all the plans," recalled a senior defense official.

Now that American troops are rolling up to Baghdad, it would behoove the American public to start contemplating the aftermath of "Operation Iraqi Freedom." (The original naming plan, cracked Jay Leno, carried the designation Operation Iraqi Liberation, but some alert bureaucrat noticed the mnemonic spelled OIL, thus leading to speculation about the true intent of the war.) In the weeks ahead, American civilian and military authorities will set up a new government for the conquered or about-to-be conquered desert nation -- at all times avoiding the word "occupation." Many of the future governing officials are already ensconced in the Middle East. Frenetic jockeying for position is occurring at several levels.

The United Nations, backed by British Prime Minister Tony Blair, will seek a larger role, but don't kid yourselves -- the Bush administration will be firmly in charge. This is an American deal.

The State Department will seek to enhance its share of the power vis-a-vis the Pentagon's, and will be thrown a few bones.

Nations like France and Germany -- always admirers in their own different ways of eventual victors -- after having excoriated the United States in a torrent of self-righteous indignation, will start making nice-nice when they smell a profit to be made in the spoils of war. They will be told to screw off.

Ostensibly, the goal will be to patiently coax the Iraqis and their institutions into a position where they can govern themselves -- in western terms -- and keep from blowing up the Middle East. Of course, that could take years.

The proconsul -- similar to the role of Gen. Douglas MacArthur in rebuilding Japan after World War II -- will be retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner. He's already in Kuwait, awaiting the word in a seaside villa, and last week visited the captured port of Umm Qasr, Iraq's key oil-exporting depot. Garner, 64, will head the military's new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. The retired general isn't controversial.

After Gulf War I -- and the restoration of order that had evaporated following the ceasefire when we let Saddam Hussein massacre and uproot Kurds in the north -- Garner for several months of active duty was in charge of feeding and protecting returning Kurdish refugees.

He was so popular in that role, the Kurds tried to stop him from leaving, and finally hoisted him on their shoulders like a winning football coach at departure. School children gave him crayoned thank-you cards. Garner was in a large part responsible for the successful Kurdish enclave in Iraq's north that I wrote about in this space two weeks ago. He listens to subordinates. Colleagues have described him as "a very bright bulldozer."

If it's controversy you want, you should pay attention to Michael H. Mobbs, 54, a Pentagon lawyer who will act as Garner's right hand in administering civilian affairs in post-Saddam Iraq. That will give Mobbs complete control over 11 of Iraq's 23 existing ministries and power to set the law enforcement standards applicable to already beaten-down Iraqi civilians. This makes civil libertarians extremely nervous.

That's because Mobbs is the attorney who quietly pierced the Constitution and changed American law recently by obtaining federal appeals court approval for a questionable wartime standard of justice. It allows incarceration and detention -- without access to a lawyer -- for American citizens suspected of consorting with terrorists, even when charged with no crime.

The case in point, which probably will end up in Supreme Court, centered on Louisiana-born Yasir Esam Hamdi, of Saudi parentage, who was captured 16 months ago on an Afghanistan battlefield, carrying a Russian assault rifle. Mobbs, a key aide in the Pentagon's Office of Special Planning, put together what is now called the "Mobbs Declaration."

The document asserted an American president's broad power to detain indefinitely American citizens thought to be enemy combatants and the government's right to hold incommunicado at a naval base in Cuba almost 700 suspected terrorists and two United States citizens (one of them Hamdi) on the mainland -- even without revealing their suspect behavior or what the government thought they did.

The Lawyers Committee for Human Rights and the American Bar Association have fretted over what standard of justice Mobbs will impose in sniffing out Saddam loyalists who could threaten the post-war regime. Mobbs is also controversial for his connections to Richard Perle, the ultra-hawk who until recently ran the Defense Policy Board -- a previously obscure panel that had great influence on President Bush in convincing him the current war was just, necessary and legal. Perle remained on the board but recently stepped down from heading it when newspaper and magazine articles described his self-positioning as consultant to contractors for potentially huge profits after the war.

Mobbs set off great jubilation in the Bush administration with his courtroom success.

Another iffy appointment may be former CIA director James Woolsey, said to be in the running to administer the Iraqi information ministry, a very important post in the Middle East.

Woolsey, as such, would probably smooth the way for Ahmed Chalabi -- head of the would-be government in exile Iraqi National Congress -- as titular head of the new Iraqi nation. Woolsey, however, is on the advisory board of JINSA -- the influential Jewish Institute for National Security Affairs -- a connection that won't escape the eyes of Muslims who think this entire war was one big favor for Israel.

Another controversial official likely to take part in the post-Saddam rebuilding -- probably as something akin to "mayor" of Baghdad -- is Arabic-speaking Barbara Bodine, who was ambassador to Yemen when suicide terrorists in the fall of 2000 ran a small bomb-laden skiff into the USS Cole, a U.S. Navy destroyer in a Yemeni harbor, killing 17 American sailors and wounding 39. Bodine made headlines when the FBI's lead investigator of the incident, counter-terrorism expert John O'Neill, claimed she was interfering with his probe and preventing identification and capture of the terrorists.

O'Neill finally quit and took a job as director of security at the World Trade Center, where he died in the Sept. 11 terrorism disaster. National law enforcement and intelligence agencies have been sore ever since about Bodine's protection of Yemeni lines of authority at the expense of the terrorism investigation.

Top active duty general in post-Saddam Iraq is likely to be Lt. Gen. John Abizaid, Centcom's current deputy commander, Gen. Tommy Franks' right-hand man and the highest-ranking Arab-American in the history of the U.S. armed forces. He's seen combat in Grenada, Lebanon, Bosnia and northern Iraq, where he toiled for Garner. He helped Garner nudge Iraqis out of Kurdistan in 1991 and is said to possess outstanding diplomatic skills.

And -- surprise, surprise -- the rebuilding of Iraq's oil industry likely will be left to the skill of a former Shell Oil executive: Philip Carroll. He would be charged with restoring production capacity and probably figuring out how to ease the French and Russians -- big nay-sayers against Gulf War II -- out of their significant positions in Iraqi petroleum production. Carroll, 65, once ran Fluor Group of California, one of the huge construction firms competing for federal contracts to rebuild Iraq.

Initially, the Pentagon planned on splitting Iraq into three provinces of governance -- one in the north for the Kurds, one in the middle for the Sunnis and one in the south for the Shiites. That has caused such quiet furor in neighboring nations that the plan is on hold. Eventual shaping of the "new" Iraq is likely to include such provinces, however.

There will be great difficulties in carrying all this off, no matter how meticulous the planning at the National Defense University and elsewhere.

Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud Faisal told the Washington Post last week that at least three eventual goals are important in conducting the rebuilding -- seeking a solution to the Arab-Israeli conflict, allowing Iraq to choose its own government and allowing Iraq to use its oil resources as it sees fit.

The United States, said the prince, "must allow Iraq to be what Iraq wants."

Maybe, someday.

John Hanchette, a professor of journalism at St. Bonaventure University, is a former editor of the Niagara Gazette and a Pulitzer Prize-winning national correspondent. He was a founding editor of USA Today and was recently named by Gannett as one of the Top 10 reporters of the past 25 years. He can be contacted via e-mail at Hanchette6@aol.com.

Niagara Falls Reporter www.niagarafallsreporter.com April 8 2003