The head of the US military's Central Command, Gen. Tommy Franks, will rule Iraq in the initial aftermath of a US invasion to overthrow President Saddam Hussein.
Administration officials briefed senators Tuesday on postwar planning, stressing that the US goal is "to liberate Iraq, not to occupy it," and last week a US envoy told leaders of Iraqi groups opposed to Hussein about American intentions.
The senators were told that even under good circumstances, it would take two years before the military could fully transfer control to an Iraqi government. As presented, the plan recalls postwar Germany and Japan, where American military occupations paved the way for transfers of power to democratic and constitutionally backed governments.
Some Iraqi opposition leaders are already attacking the plan, saying it amounts to a US military rule of Iraq that will favor the existing power structure in the country. Instead of turning Iraq into a beacon of democracy in the Middle East, an ambition articulated by some US policymakers, the opposition leaders say the US plan seems designed to ease the fears of Arabs and Turks unhappy with the prospect of a democratic, federal Iraq.
But Barham Salih, prime minister of an enclave in northern Iraq controlled by the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), advises a pragmatic view of the US plan. "Let's not get too hot about this," he said late Tuesday in an interview at his home here. "Who is doing the heavy lifting?"
The answer is, of course, the US, and Mr. Salih's implication is that shouldering the big load brings with it a few prerogatives. He maintains an eyes-on-the-prize approach to the debate over how to run Iraq's affairs immediately after the current leader is removed: "The key thing for us is getting rid of Saddam Hussein."
Some elements of Iraq's fractious opposition, including groups funded by the US, have been determined to form a government-in-waiting in order to ensure that Iraq's sovereignty stays in Iraqi hands. They argue that Iraqis will see even a temporary US administration of Iraq as occupation, engendering anti-American sentiment throughout the Middle East.
Even so, the US has decided to run the country itself, although the structure outlined to Congress and the opposition groups envisions a "consultative council" of Iraqis selected by the US to advise American administrators.
"To be kind, it is unworkable. Either reason will prevail, or time will demonstrate to the authors [of the US plan] the error of their ways," says Iraqi National Congress leader Ahmed Chalabi. "I really shudder to think."
A US civilian coordinator, retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, is already presiding over committees of US bureaucrats preparing to address humanitarian relief, reconstruction, and civil administration - all part of a planning effort authorized by President Bush on Jan. 20. General Franks retains overall responsibility for a war and its aftermath.
Undersecretary of Defense Douglas Feith told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee Tuesday that "Central [Iraqi] government ministries could remain in place and perform the key functions of government after the vetting of the top personnel to remove any who might be tainted with the crimes and excesses of the current regime."
This formula sounds to some Iraqi opposition leaders as though much of Iraq's existing power structure, dominated by Hussein's ruling Baath Party, will maintain its role. "Power is being handed, essentially on a platter, to the second echelon of the Baath Party and the [Iraqi] Army officer corps," says Kanan Makiya, an adviser to Mr. Chalabi who discussed postwar Iraq with President Bush on Jan. 10. "It's going to have the opposite effect to what US wants it to have," he adds.
The US plan also imagines, in Feith's words, a "Constitutional commission ... to draft a new Constitution and submit it to the Iraqi people for ratification."
Zalmay Khalilzad, the US envoy to the Iraqi opposition, briefed leaders of three groups opposed to Hussein about the plan in Ankara, Turkey, last week. In interviews here, Chalabi and Mr. Makiya said they were unable to attend because the US gave them just 18 hours' notice, but added that they have been told about the discussions from opposition figures who participated.
Mr. Khalilzad met with the two Kurdish parties - the Kurdistan Democratic Party and the PUK - that administer areas of northern Iraq outside Hussein's control. A leader of the Iran-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), which represents major elements of the country's Shiite community, also took part in the Ankara meetings.
Both Kurds and Shiites rebelled unsuccessfully against Hussein after the Gulf war, thinking the US would defend them. Instead the US stood back as Hussein crushed the uprisings. But for more than a decade US and British warplanes have kept Iraqi planes from flying over both areas, a limitation that has offered Kurds, in northern Iraq, and Shiites, in the south, some protection from Hussein's military.
The Kurds and Shiites are important to the US in part because both have men under arms. But they are also groups that may pose complexities.
Long disenfranchised by Hussein, despite their majority status, the Shiites want to see a more just distribution of power in a new Iraq. This desire makes the US wary, since SCIRI, the main Shiite group, is supported by Iran's theocratic rulers. The US would like Iran's role in Iraq kept to a minimum.
Makiya asserts that installing a US military ruler "is certified, guaranteed to make [SCIRI leader Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr al-Hakim] a major player in Iraq because he's gong to run in ... elections, along with the rest of the opposition, on an anti-occupation platform."
The Kurds want at least to preserve the de facto autonomy they have gained over the past decade, and have insisted that the new Iraq adopt a federal system of government. But federalism makes Turkey anxious, on the theory that an autonomous Kurdish area in a federal Iraq might inspire Turkey's Kurds to seek something similar. The Turks have relentlessly suppressed Kurdish nationalism.
At the same time, Turkish cooperation is an important feature of US war planning, which may explain why US officials "told the Kurds to be very, very careful and very realistic about federalism," in Chalabi's rendition of events in Ankara.
Rather than allying itself with Iraq's opposition, an ambitious and fractious collection of exiles and dissidents, the US seems to be gambling that large segments of the Iraqi establishment will cooperate in a American-led effort to rehabilitate the country and reform its political system. Makiya says with evident disappointment that years of collaborative effort with US officials - including US funding, an act of Congress promoting Iraq's "liberation," and a "democratic principles working group on Iraq" backed by the State Department - are "all down the drain."
But the US approach may increase the comfort level of some US friends in the Arab world, who preside over autocratic regimes and who may be uneasy with an effort to create a Western-style democracy in their midst.
"What concerns us a lot," Chalabi says, "is the perception of the Arab governments and their friends in Washington about the effect Iraq could have by its example on the future of the Arab world."