The 65-year-old Garner told reporters in the Iraqi capital his top priority was to quickly restore essential services, such as water and electricity, throughout the country.
“What better day in your life can you have than to be able to help somebody else, to help other people, and that is what we intend to do,” he said.
Appointed by President Bush to head the Pentagon’s Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA), Garner arrived with his initial staff of some 20 civil administrators, including his British deputy, Major General Tim Cross. Garner’s staff is expected to grow to 450 military officers and civilians as they arrive from Kuwait over the next week.
Garner began his assessment of damage inflicted by the war with a tour of the 1,000-bed Yarmuk hospital in southern Baghdad, which had been overwhelmed with Iraqi casualties and then robbed of everything but its beds by looters.
“What we need to do from this day forward is to give birth to a new system in Iraq,” Garner told doctors at the hospital. “It begins with us working together, but it is hard work and it takes a long time. We will help you as long as you want us to.”
Some doctors, however, expressed skepticism about U.S. promises to improve conditions in their country.
“I want to cry, because these are only words,” a doctor, who identified herself as Iman, told Reuters. “If they give us anything, it is not from their own pockets. It is from our oil.”
“Saddam Hussein was an unjust ruler, but maybe one day we could have got rid of him, and not had these foreigners come,” she added.
Garner and his top aides later visited a power plant and an abandoned sewage facility in the Iraqi capital. He cautioned Iraqis that rebuilding their government would be a long, difficult task, saying he expects to “leave fairly rapidly,” but “will be here as long as it takes.”
Garner’s team said Washington did not recognize the authority of Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, a recently returned exile who declared himself mayor of Baghdad on Sunday and announced he has already set up a municipal government.
“We don’t really know much about him except that he’s declared himself mayor. We don’t recognize him,” Barbara Bodine, the U.S. coordinator for central Iraq working with Garner, said on Monday.
However, Garner was quick to tell reporters he did not consider himself Baghdad’s new leader.
“I don’t rule anything,” he said. “I am the coalition facilitator to establish a different environment where these people can pull things together themselves and begin a self-government process … and end up with a democracy.”
Stephen Browning, a U.S. civil engineer advising Garner’s team on water, power and sanitation, noted that many Iraqis were wary about the U.S. reconstruction team.
Browning told Reuters their common attitude was: “We appreciate you for deposing Saddam. We appreciate your help. But we don’t want you to stay.”
Garner is expected to visit northern Iraq later this week, then return to Baghdad to meet with civic leaders.