Former U.S. official in Iraq shares his experiences

Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner says positive developments are happening in war-plagued country

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It was unclear whether the large crowd gathered Thursday to listen to retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner wanted war stories or answers to their confusion about the war in Iraq.

By the end of his two-hour talk, Garner had given them both.

In 2003, Garner was named the first director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance in Iraq. On Thursday, he gave the fourth and final lecture in this summer's Seminars at Steamboat: Dialogues on Public Policy series.

His first story began in the White House during a meeting he had with Condoleezza Rice and Donald Rumsfeld and ended in Iraq, "near the birthplace of civilization, which was going to become a birthplace of democracy," Garner said.

After he painted a scene for those present, he began listing and explaining the myths about the United States' presence in Iraq.

"The first myth is that we did not plan for post-war Iraq," he said. "The second is that the terrorism took us by surprise."

The biggest myth of all, he said, was that Iraq was better before the war. Under the rule of Saddam Hussein, agricultural production dropped and technology in the oil fields never updated.

"In Iraq, under Saddam, the government spent 90 cents per year per person on health care," he said. "And the sewage system was in such bad shape that 200 metric tons of sewage was dumped in the Tigris River each day.

"We didn't realize how badly the infrastructure had deteriorated."

Since liberating Iraq from Hussein's rule, hospitals, schools and universities had been refurbished and hundreds of Iraqis have been hired to pick up garbage in city streets to reduce the chances of disease epidemics, he said.

But Iraq still is struggling. To understand what needs to happen next in Iraq, people need only to study the history of the United States, a country with a democratic government that has gone through many changes during the past 200 years, Garner said. There was a time when U.S. citizens had slaves and when blacks and women could not vote, he said.

"We can't take our type of democracy that had developed over all this time and implant it on the Middle East. For Iraqis to have democracy, they need to have it in their own time and in their own comfort zone."

For democracy to work, Iraq first needs a stable economy. When workers feel that they have a market share, they also feel they have a stake in government, he said. "And that's when they stop thinking on the past and look to the future."

Garner proposed that a stable Iraq would best be divided into four federal states with their own police forces, languages, religions and standards of health care and education. Those states would be held together by a weak central government whose priorities would be the military security of the country.

There must be guaranteed rights for women in the new Iraqi constitution, he said, and it must include a provision for the autonomy of the Kurds.

He also suggested a system wherein citizens of the new Iraq would receive a percentage of the annual profits from the country's oil fields, in much the same framework as the annual Permanent Fund Dividend checks received by residents of Alaska.

And the most important step for ensuring Iraq's stability is the employment of youths ages 14 to 26. The idle and disenfranchised males of that age group are the most common recruits for terrorist groups, he said. As a solution, Garner pointed to the Civilian Conservation Corps formed in 1933 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt, which took four million youths off the streets.

His last suggestion was to infuse the country with capital and eliminate Iraq's enormous debt incurred by Saddam Hussein.

"If we don't, they won't be able to pay it," he said. "Even if democracy does take hold, the country will collapse under that debt.

"If there is one thing I want you to believe, it is this: In Iraq, the opportunities are enormous. This is not a Third World country. They have skilled doctors and engineers. They have agricultural resources, national treasures and oil. A wealthy, democratic Iraq could be a reality."

-- To reach Autumn Phillips call 871-4210 or e-mail aphillips@steamboatpilot.com

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