America - Andrew Stephen on American impatience with Iraq

The Pentagon has wrested control of postwar Iraq from the State Department, just as it took control

I was talking to the wife of a very senior member of the Bush administration the other day. "You do realise," she said to me with great emphasis, "that we have only a matter of weeks to get things right in Iraq." To stress the short time left, she held her forefinger close to her thumb. "A matter of weeks - that's all," she repeated.

She was, in effect, warning that the administration's patience with Iraq will wear out if peace does not magically alight on the country by the end of the summer. It does not matter if, having shocked and awed the benighted country in war, America is impotent in peace.

The American public certainly does not care: the US military won a mighty victory, a venal dictator has gone, and it is now up to the Iraqi people to make something of their wretched little country - to show a bit of initiative, American-style.

Few Americans realise that there are still 160,000 American troops (plus 40,000 British) in Iraq. That public complacency filters down from the very top. As lawlessness, looting and threats of dysentery and cholera increase in Baghdad, Donald Rumsfeld, the defence secretary, says airily: "Freedom is untidy. Free people are free to make mistakes and commit crimes and do bad things."

Quite. More than six weeks after the de facto end of the war in Iraq, the US is failing to make any headway in its supposed rebuilding of the country. General Jay Garner, a friend of Rumsfeld who was appointed to head the reconstruction, has been sacked in favour of L Paul Bremer III, a career diplomat who was prominent in the Reagan administration.

But Bremer, though technically from the State Department, was chosen by Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz - and will report directly to Rumsfeld rather than to Colin Powell, the secretary of state (whereas Garner was reporting only to General Tommy Franks, chief of US Central Command).

It is the same lower down the ranks. I know two Americans who have gone to Baghdad to aid in the "reconstruction": one is from the State Department, the other from the Treasury. Each, though, has temporarily been seconded to the Pentagon. In other words, Rumsfeld and the Pentagon have taken control of postwar Iraq every bit as much as they took control of the war. The trouble is that they were appallingly ill-prepared: when Garner arrived in Baghdad after weeks of being heralded as Iraq's peacetime saviour, he had no e-mail links, no way for people outside to phone him, no cars, drivers or interpreters. Although he was clearly not up to the task, few here noticed or bothered; Bremer's succession is being portrayed as the natural progression from military to civilian control which (as we have seen) it is not.

Garner, in his brief reign, outlawed the Ba'ath Party and gave encouragement, fiscal and otherwise, to the Kurdish minority in the north and to anti-Ba'athist exile groups. In particular, he arranged the entry to Baghdad of the exiled "leader" Ahmad Chalabi, an American-educated, would-be puppet ruler who immediately ensconced himself in the city's comfortable Hunting Club.

The Shia majority - 10,000 of whom marched in an anti-American protest last Monday - has largely been ignored, first by Garner and now by Bremer, who fears an Iranian-style clerical takeover of Iraq. Allowing the majority in Iraq to choose such a government would be taking this democracy thing a bit too far.

With crime rampant, the water polluted and still with little or no electricity or phone service in Baghdad, the US has been forced to increase its military presence in the Iraqi capital from 16,000 to 25,000 - still far too small a number to take control of a city of more than five million. "This was a war plan, not a law-enforcement plan," protests a spokesman for the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Baghdad. The newly "retired" Garner, speaking to a House committee, concurred with what my informant told me: "The next 30 or 40 days is probably the critical period," he said. "If we make headway on a lot of major things, we will put ourselves in a marvellous up-ramp [sic] where things can begin happening. If we don't do that, we're on a negative ramp."

We are told here that militias are forming at an alarming pace in Baghdad, including a branch of Hezbollah. Bremer says that it will be at least a year before an Iraqi government can be installed, and even then it will have limited powers. That alone represents a retreat: the US originally said that a "nucleus" of an Iraqi government - presumably with Chalabi at the helm - would assume power by the end of this month.

But the likes of Wolfowitz and Dick Cheney, the vice-president, always said that the Iraqi people would welcome the US troops: democracy would then just fall into place naturally, you see.