White House takes direct role in the running of Iraqi affairs

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The Independent US

The Bush administration is overhauling the management of the United States' operations in Iraq and Afghanistan, centralising control of both in the White House, and reducing the role of the Pentagon, strongly criticised for poor planning of the post-war reconstruction in Iraq.

Under the new arrangements, an "Iraq Stabilisation Group" is being set up, under the national security adviser Condoleezza Rice, arguably the President's closest and most trusted aide on foreign policy and security issues.

The group will focus on four areas: counter-terrorism, economic development in Iraq, the creation of new political structures in the country and, last but not least, getting the administration's message out to the media.

At a joint news conference with the visiting Kenyan President Mwai Kibaki, President George Bush declared: "We are making good progress. The situation is improving on a daily basis, but it's sometimes hard to learn that through the filter." His words betrayed the White House's frustration at what it sees as the excessive emphasis of media coverage on the violent resistance to the US occupying forces and general lawlessness in the country, with scant mention of positive developments.

But the very fact of the overhaul confirms Mr Bush's concerns, and his awareness that he has probably staked his Presidency to what happens in Iraq during the next few months. The March invasion was popular at the time, but now 50 per cent of voters think it was not worth it. The failure to find any trace of Saddam Hussein's vaunted chemical and biological weapons can only re-inforce the scepticism. Officials insist the changes will not affect the lead role in reconstruction entrusted to the Pentagon before the war, or the position of Paul Bremer, the US administrator in Iraq, who currently reports to the Pentagon.

But the hope is that a more hands-on role for Ms Rice will ease the feuding between the State Department and the Pentagon, which has muddied US policymaking for post-war Iraq.

Whether that will happen remains to be seen. Ms Rice, who has lately come in for unaccustomed scrutiny here for her role in the intelligence debacle before the war, has a low- key approach to her job, in sharp contrast with predecessors such as Henry Kissinger.

Often she seems overshadowed by the commanding figures of Donald Rumsfeld at the Pentagon and Colin Powell, the Secretary of State, and the fierce rivalry between their respective staffs.

The shake-up coincided with a warning from President Vladimir Putin of Russia that the US could be facing a 21st-century version of the Soviet Union's war in Afghanistan, when the swift invasion of 1979 was followed by a bloody and decade-long guerrilla conflict, and ultimately humiliating withdrawal in 1989.

To avoid this fate, Washington must hand over sovereignty to the Iraqis, Mr Putin told The New York Times, and secure a new Security Council resolution to enlarge the role of the United Nations in Iraq.

But the creation of the new co-ordinating group does not appear to signal much movement on either front.

Mr Rumsfeld is said to be chastened by the criticism to which he has been subjected, and he - and Mr Bush - are adamantly opposed to an expanded UN role. That explains the cool reception for the US draft resolution now circulating in New York.