The Bush administration is expected to appoint a temporary authority to govern Iraq even before Baghdad falls and Saddam Hussein's regime is routed.
Administration officials say they are considering installing a government that includes prominent Iraqi exiles in areas under the control of US-led forces while the regime in Baghdad is increasingly isolated. Then, "whatever's happening inside Baghdad is almost irrelevant compared to what's going on in the rest of the country," Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters. Over time, Mr. Hussein and his inner circle will completely lose their ability to communicate with Iraq's military forces, which are already in a state of disarray.
The regime's hold on power has been significantly weakened by more than two weeks of relentless air strikes targeting its command and control infrastructure, including vital communications facilities. And US ground forces working to surround the city are securing sites of strategic and symbolic importance. Saddam International Airport was the first of these to fall into coalition hands after a high-pitched battle Thursday night and Friday.
Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld is the major proponent of the interim Iraqi authority in Iraq, according to "US News and World Report." It says Mr. Rumsfeld sent two memos to President Bush this week requesting that the US "support those Iraqis who share the president's objectives for a free Iraq." Rumsfeld said this will turn international perceptions in favor of the US.
Key European allies, however, have presented a competing vision of a post-war Iraq, one that favors UN-backed administration and reconstruction.
"Based on what we have heard so far from the US administration, it seems like they would like their own version of post-war Iraq, including how it's run and by whom," says Mustapha Karkouti, a member of the Royal Institute of International Affairs in London.
Mr. Karkouti says that while European countries, including Britain, would not be averse to the US playing an advisory capacity, they would "like to see the United Nations playing what they call a vital and important role, not the supporting role the US administration seems willing to give it," he adds.
In Brussels on Thursday, US Secretary of State Colin Powell acknowledged wide consensus that the UN has a role to play in post-war Iraq, but stressed the US and Britain would play the lead role.
Mr. Powell's comments clashed with the view in European capitals. "The United Nations is the only international organization that can give legitimacy to this," said French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin after meeting Powell Thursday.
After a meeting with his German and Russian counterparts on Friday, Mr. Villepin told reporters "There should be no discussion either on the principle or on the terms" of UN participation in Iraq. "No country or countries can hope to win the war alone. Nobody can hope to build peace alone."
"The last thing you want are France and Russia on the ground [in Iraq after the war] trying to protect their own economic interests," says Nile Gardiner, a visiting fellow in Anglo-American security policy at the Heritage Foundation. The US should follow a key principle: only members of the "coalition of the willing" should have any say and part in post-war Iraq.
Mr. Gardiner opposes UN involvement in Iraq because the "UN lacks total moral authority," he says, pointing out that the world body failed to enforce 17 resolutions breached by Iraq. For this reason, "It's imperative that in the weeks ahead the Bush administration rebuff UN plans for a central role in the post-war government."
Instead, he expects to see a US-British appointed administration governing the country for six months to a year. It will be headed by retired US Gen. Jay Garner, the man Mr. Bush has eyed for the job. This body will be charged with assembling an interim Iraqi authority that will be responsible for planning nationwide elections.
"The key thing here is to do the job well and to demonstrate that the US has the interests of the Iraqi people at heart," says Gardiner. The British, who have centuries of experience in running foreign countries, will be extremely valuable to the partnership, he adds.
That kind of thinking will only lead the US and Britain into serious trouble, says Robert Mabro, director of the UK's Oxford Institute of Energy Studies. He says Britain's experience as a colonial power in the past century is irrelevant in the current context, especially when the US is trying to shy away from being perceived as a neocolonial power.
Karkouti points out that the US has very limited experience in this kind of intervention and that it has never been a colonial power as such. He cautions the US against believing it can extensively draw on its experience in Afghanistan, because the situation in Iraq is "totally different. It is huge, vast, rich, with large amounts of oil.... The ethnic fabric of the country is totally different (from that of Afghanistan) and is surrounded by neighbors who have extended ethnic populations in Iraq."
"Iraq being Iraq," says Mr. Mabro, originally from neighboring Syria, "you can be sure that for many years you're going to be in trouble.... You may end up staying far longer than you intended to. And if you stay, you'll be dragged into the security problem."
"If the US and Britain are clever, they'll say to the UN 'please take it off our hands.' "
While it is highly unlikely that the coalition will side with the Europeans, the issue of the interim government will be discussed when Bush and Prime Minister Tony Blair hold a war council in Northern Ireland on Monday and Tuesday.
Wire reports were used in this article.