New team to oversee Iraq effort

Setbacks in Afghanistan and Iraq prompt added oversight of key fronts in terror war.

The White House is ordering a major revision of reconstruction efforts in view of increasing US public questioning of postwar operations in Iraq and President Bush's own impatience with the progress of America's two key nation-building projects - Iraq and Afghanistan.

The reorganization, aimed at shifting management of the rebuilding projects more fully to the White House, is tacit acknowledgment that neither program is going either as well or as swiftly as hoped.

Indeed, stability and progress in the two countries are seen as key yardsticks by which the American public will measure the Bush administration a year from now. Thus some administration officials and outside experts say the redrawing is also recognition that success could well determine the president's reelection prospects.

While direction of US efforts on the ground in Iraq will remain under the authority of Paul Bremer, coordination and oversight of the stateside element of the rebuilding projects will be assumed by National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice.

The White House emphasized Monday that the Pentagon will remain the "lead agency" on the rebuilding efforts. But it also acknowledged that the new "Iraq Stabilization Group" will be coordinated by Ms. Rice and divided into four basic areas.

"This is a group to help assist the Department of Defense and the coalition's efforts," White House spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters. "Ambassador Bremer will still report to Secretary Rumsfeld." The four areas of emphasis, each to be overseen by one of Rice's deputies on the National Security Council, are: counterterrorism, economic issues, political institutions, and communications.

The reorganization reflects "the new phase we're now entering," Mr. McClellan said, when anticipated passage of Mr. Bush's supplemental budget request for Iraq and Afghanistan means "we're going to have a lot more resources." The idea, he said, is to assist Bremer and for the provisional authority to "put those resources to the best possible use."

Still, the management recast reflects a void some experts say has been evident for months. "I've been wondering for a while now who really is in charge of the Iraq process back here," says Patrick Clawson, deputy director of the Washington Institute for Near East Policy. "In most any administration, you would have had a Mr. Iraq here in Washington responsible for the inter-agency coordination."

One reason that hasn't happened until now is that the Bush administration simply thought Iraq and Afghanistan wouldn't remain the security and stability concerns they have. But new fighting has erupted with a regrouping Taliban in Afghanistan. At the same time, US officials in Iraq acknowledge that continued attacks against coalition forces there demonstrate a higher coordination and sophistication among armed opponents.

Another possible factor behind Rice's expanded duties: this administration's management approach.."It's the style of this White House to keep things close to the chest," Mr. Clawson says. Unlike earlier administrations, he notes for example, this one has no single person in charge of the Middle East peace process.

Until now, the stabilization efforts have been largely overseen by the Pentagon. Setbacks and mounting casualties have highlighted management shortcomings, some experts say. But it was probably the interference that the administration's $87 billion Iraq stabilization request encountered in Congress that prompted the new oversight plans. No one, apparently, fine-tuned the budget request with an eye to "what would fly with Congress and what might not," says one source who would not be named.

Publicly the White House says the new management group reflects the turn towards greater emphasis on reconstruction and political reform efforts that will follow passage of the president's supplemental budget.

But the president is also said to be frustrated with lack of a more solid sense of progress in the two countries. At the same time, opinion polls indicate similar frustration among an American public whose confidence in the president's ability to manage the postwar period is flagging.

Dissatisfaction has also surfaced within the administration over management of the Iraq reconstruction effort, with State Department officials especially unhappy at the fact the Pentagon was made the lead agency for rebuilding work.

But the new focus appears to be a tweak of the State Department as well, since it is running Afghanistan's post-conflict reconstruction.

That explains why a particular emphasis of the new coordination will be communication. Administration officials, moreover, have been frustrated that the public is not picking up on signs of hope in Iraq. "There's a feeling in the administration that the great progress we've made in Iraq in may ways has not been reflected at home in the media, and they want to see that the word gets out better," says James Phillips, a Middle East expert at the Heritage Foundation in Washington.

"Their real goal is to stabilize Bush's public approval rating," says Larry Sabato, a political scientist at the University of Virginia. This, he adds, means "sending the message [to people on the ground] to produce - and fast."

Linda Feldmann contributed to this report.

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