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In charge of Iraq - and eager not to be

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Back in the United States, he waged blistering bureaucratic battles in the Pentagon over the future of missile defense programs, which were seriously downgraded during the Clinton years. He also took a tough line with congressional critics who questioned the performance of US Patriot missiles after the Gulf War. Those same missiles have come in for criticism in the current war, after incidents in which they downed coalition aircraft.

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Maj. Gen Robert Scales, a colleague during those years, recalls "very, very tough" Pentagon fights in the mid-'90s, when Garner was Army assistant chief of staff. "No matter how hard he was pilloried within the Pentagon, he never ever walked away from a sense of soldierly values," he says.

"He is very focused, incredibly tenacious. He has enormous organizational abilities to make order out of chaos - and is one of the few generals who has had good experience with the interagency arena [during Operation Provide Comfort]," he adds. "He has worked with the United Nations and the State Department, but I think there is no question who will be in charge."

Like many former admirals and generals, when Garner retired from military service in 1987, he stepped into a top job with a defense contractor, SY Technology, a California-based company that specializes in missile defense.

Until this week, Garner has kept a conspicuously low profile. He has not appeared before Congress, despite many invitations, and refused requests for interviews with the press.

This week, he enters into the minutiae of what is sure to be a highly complex mission. Twelve years (and two stars) ago, when Garner directed the ad hoc relief operation in Northern Iraq, he arrived in early April to assess the terrain, where some 60,000 refugees were in desperate need of food and shelter. From the start, his goal was set up camps that met UN standards for a hand-off - right down to the size of tents and the number of latrines - say sources close to the operation.

Rather than attempt to disarm the Kurdish fighters, Garner required that they leave their arms with the Spanish guards before coming into the cities.

Crossing paths with Hussein

When hostile Iraqi forces threatened to blow up one of Saddam Hussein's big palaces under construction in the region, Garner responded by asking if they needed any help. "Ask if they need any explosives," he said.

Just as the UN official delegation was spotted on the horizon to take over the operation, a firefight broke out nearby. Unwilling to jeopardize the handoff, Garner sent a message to US forces: "Y'all get that over with real quick, and you let hose guys know they don't want to [make me angry]." The firefight ended, and the handoff occurred as scheduled.

No one expects the handoff to be as simple this time. Humanitarian groups that worked with Garner in northern Iraq say they expect his role to be much more challenging this time. "Any concerns from the [aid groups] have nothing to do with the man, it's who he reports to," says Neal Keny-Guyer, CEO of Mercy Corps, a humanitarian relief organization based in Portland, Ore.

Controversy over contracts

Managing relations with the small army of international businesses wanting in on postwar Iraqi contracts will also be a challenge. Already, European critics are charging that Garner's ties to the US defense contractors gives "the military industrial lobby ... a direct access to the levers of power," said Le Nouvel Observateur, a leading French weekly. "The selection of a weapons maker and former military general for the top civilian job in Iraq tells the people of the Middle East that we intend to dominate them militarily," says Michael Shellenberger, who founded the website

Critics, especially in the Arab world, say that Garner's public statements in support of Israel's crackdown in the Palestianian territories also compromise his new role in Iraq. In an October 2000 statement, Garner and 43 other retired US admirals and generals credited Israel with exercising "remarkable restraint" in response to the "lethal violence orchestrated by the leadership of the Palestinian authority."

"The idea that 10 days spent in a friendly democratic country after 31 years of military service makes him unable to fairly represent US interests in Iraq is ludicrous and offensive," Says Shoshana Bryen, who organized these tours for the Jewish Institute for National Security Affiars, a Washington-based group.

But in the end, all that counts is whether he can carry out the mission. If he does that, he can, like General MacArthur's "good soldiers," just fade away.