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Pentagon vetoes new task force to take control of Baghdad

The parallel internal war in Washington over Iraq flared again yesterday when the Pentagon vetoed a list of senior officials proposed by the State Department to help to run the country once Saddam Hussein has been overthrown.

The proposed team is understood to have included several present and former high-level diplomats, including ambassadors to Arab states, who would have joined what amounts to a cabinet under the retired General Jay Garner, named by the Pentagon to head an interim administration.

But Donald Rumsfeld, the Defence Secretary, is understood to have vetoed the group as "too bureaucratic". Among those favoured by the Pentagon is said to be James Woolsey, the former CIA director and long-standing proponent of military action against Iraq. The Pentagon also wants a job for Ahmed Chalabi, the head of the Iraqi National Congress opposition group, whom the State Department regards with high suspicion.

The dispute is more evidence of the Pentagon's determination to retain as direct a control as possible of the rebuilding of Iraq, relegating the international community, the United Nations, NGOs, and even other parts of the US government to supporting parts.

It is also another facet of the running battle – mostly submerged but sometimes bursting into public view – between Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and the hardliners led by Mr Rumsfeld, his deputy Paul Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, the Vice-President, for the ear of President George Bush.

The rivalry stretches back to last summer, when Mr Bush overruled the Cheney/ Rumsfeld camp and followed General Powell's urgings to take the crisis to the UN and to give the weapons inspectors one last chance.

The quarrelling ranges from the management of humanitarian aid to post-war Iraq, the shape of a post-Saddam administration, the place of the UN in reconstruction and the role of Iraqi opposition groups in the transition phase.

According to The Washington Post yesterday, the State Department's nominated group was due to leave Washington for Kuwait last week, but was told to "stand down" after objections from the Pentagon. At the same time, General Powell wrote to Mr Rumsfeld, saying civilian agencies co-ordinated by the State Department should be in charge of distributing humanitarian aid.

The Defence Secretary's response is unknown. But the exchange only underlines how Bush administration's plans for Iraq, even for the post-war phase, are still in flux.

General Powell fears that if the US military is seen to control matters, foreign governments who opposed the invasion without prior UN approval, and aid agencies, will be less willing to help. Last week, the heads of 14 US aid agencies wrote to Mr Bush, pleading that the UN takes charge. They left no doubt they did not want to be Pentagon subcontractors.

So far the President has been ambiguous on the issue. At the Azores summit with Tony Blair and Jose Maria Aznar, the Spanish Prime Minister, Mr Bush said the UN would play a vital part in aid efforts. That comment was generally taken as a nod in the direction of Mr Blair, a fervent proponent of UN involvement. But Mr Blair appeared to make little new headway when he met Mr Bush at Camp David last week.

The disagreement is an increasing worry for neutral Iraq exile groups. "Quarrelling between the US government agencies is terribly detrimental to Iraq," Rend Rahim Francke, the executive director of the Iraq Foundation, a non-profit group promoting democracy and human rights, said yesterday. "The best way of bringing the Iraqi opposition groups together is to end the divisions inside the US government. There should be one Iraq policy, not five or six."

She also urged that an Iraqi face be given to the military operation in progress. "When the troops go in, Iraqis see British and American soldiers who can't communicate," Ms Francke told a meeting at the American Enterprise Institute in Washington, a think-tank and stronghold of neo- conservative hawks on Iraq. "I fail completely to understand why, when so many Iraqis are ready to go in to help build bridges, the coalition so far hasn't made use of them."

Ari Fleischer, Mr Bush's spokesman, said last night that the exact job of the UN in Iraq would only be decided once the war was over but the military is certain to play a key role.

In the build-up to the conflict, the President Bush has tended to side with the Cheney/Rumsfeld/Wolfowitz group. General Powell has had little choice but to go along, given the discipline of the administration and the premium Mr Bush places on loyalty.

Separately, Mr Fleischer stressed the President's complete faith in Mr Rumsfeld, who has been accused of overruling his top commanders and going to war with too small a force on the ground.

The latest claims, Mr Fleischer said, were second guessing one of "1,000 colonels" at the Pentagon.