President Bush meets Monday in Northern Ireland with British Prime Minister Tony Blair for talks that will include the politically touchy topic of Iraq's postwar reconstruction - an issue that is hardly settled in Washington.
The fierce battle, which is playing out between the State Department and the Pentagon over who will win what reconstruction role, may look like insider politics, but its impact will be widely felt. The outcome will largely determine everything from how a multibillion-dollar Iraq remake is paid for and which Iraqis gain the upper hand in a postwar government, to how America deals with the world for years to come.
"These are uncharted waters for the United States. We don't know what we're getting into, but the route we take will influence so much - even who our friends are and how the United Nations functions in the future," says Charles Dunbar, a former US ambassador to several Middle Eastern countries.
The White House took steps Friday to calm speculation swirling around the reconstruction question. National Security Adviser Condoleezza Rice said that an "interim authority" planned for tapping Iraqis will include those both inside the country and from the exile community.
The US will take the lead in both immediate relief work and long-term reconstruction, she said, because the US and coalition countries have paid for that right "with life and blood." The international community, especially the UN, will have a role to play - although Dr. Rice said it is "yet to be determined."
The White House envisions the Defense Department as the lead force in the reconstruction effort, with Mr. Bush already designating Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and the Pentagon to spearhead post-conflict relief and rebuilding work.
In essence, Mr. Rumsfeld wants Iraq's reconstruction to be - and to appear to the world, for the purposes of the all-important public-relations battle - a largely American affair. This vision allows little room other than a humanitarian role for international agencies such as the UN, which the Pentagon's civilian leadership views as having not only lost the "relevancy test" Bush laid out for it, but also worked against America's security interests.
In some ways, it's a classic "to the victor go the spoils" vision of postwar planning. Pentagon planners, backed by Vice President Dick Cheney, believe the remodeling of postwar Iraq is too important to trust to "failed" institutions and dubious friends. Rumsfeld also favors a central role for Iraqi exile groups that the Pentagon has built a close relationship with over recent years. That includes the Iraqi National Congress and its leader, Ahmad Chalabi.
The State Department scenario, which Secretary of State Colin Powell talked up with European allies in a quick trip across the Atlantic last week, envisions a broader role for international players. That includes the UN - as Bush's chief ally, Blair, insists - and foreign companies to participate in infrastructure renewal.
The US and its coalition partners must play the dominant role in the immediate postwar period, Mr. Powell told Europeans last week. But "that is not to say that we ... will not work in partnership with the international community and especially with the United Nations," he said in Brussels.
Not only could it be infeasible for the US to pay for reconstruction on its own, Powell believes. But supporters of the "shared-burden" vision say that the "America knows best" approach would feed global perceptions of an arrogant America and risk exposing Americans to attack.
State Department officials also oppose any preordained central role for Mr. Chalabi, who they maintain is rejected by older Iraqis and unknown by younger ones.
US officials insist Bush has yet to come down firmly on either side in the debate. But some State Department officials say they fear that decisions already made indicate Powell has largely lost the battle.
A shadow government of US officials ready to move into Iraq to take over the operation of key ministries is already in waiting in Kuwait. This shadow government - which was vetted by Rumsfeld, who passed over several State Department recommendations for key posts - is headed by Jay Garner, a retired Army general.
Powell, however, got a boost from Congress Thursday when the House passed a version of war-spending legislation that says reconstruction money must be "apportioned only to the Department of State" - an apparent slap at a White House request that war funding including reconstruction money be channeled to the Pentagon and as unrestricted funds.
"This is really Act II of a battle being fought by the Pentagon over the last year to impose its plans for Iraq after Saddam Hussein," says Marina Ottaway, an expert in post-conflict government and democratization at the Carnegie Endowment for International Peace in Washington. "That this is being decided when the war is viewed as so successful makes it more likely Mr. Rumsfeld will have his way."
But a lead role for the US would be a mistake, Ms. Ottaway says, because Iraq is going to require a period of occupation by some security-keeping force, and she says that would be damaging politically and financially for the US.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, who has been involved in postwar planning, said Sunday that an interim authority involving a heavy US presence would last at least six months.