With the fall of Saddam Hussein's regime in Iraq, the United States is moving quickly to bring together a group of Iraqis and Iraqi exiles to plan an interim government. A senior U.S. official offered details of the administration's plans to a Senate panel Thursday.
U.S. Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz says the United States hopes to arrange a number of American-style "town hall" meetings around Iraq, where the Iraqi people could have a say in the formation of an interim administration. "We would envision a kind of series of town hall kinds of assemblies in different parts of the country, where the issues can get elevated by Iraqis, not by foreigners, where I think the whole world, and most importantly, Iraqis can get some idea as to who the people are who can articulate positions well, who seem to speak for more than just themselves," said Paul Wolfowitz. "Out of that process, we would be able to reach some sort of consensus on how to set up this interim authority."
Mr. Wolfowitz told the Senate Armed Services Committee the first such meeting would take place next week, at a date and city yet to be announced. Iraqis from inside and outside the country would be invited to attend.
He said General Tommy Franks, commander of the U.S. Central Command, would host the series of meetings. Coalition members that have troops on the ground - Britain, Poland and Australia - would also take part. The United Nations would be invited as an observer.
Mr. Wolfowitz said all Iraqis are welcome to participate, except for those tied to the regime of Saddam Hussein and his ruling Baath Party. "Our only criterion is that, to come to this, you need to have a commitment to a free and democratic Iraq, and not be a Baathist killer," he said.
A U.S.-led civil administration, headed by retired General Jay Garner, is to be established initially, before the interim Iraqi authority is in place. That authority would eventually hand over power to a democratically-elected government.
On the issue of reconstructing Iraq, Mr. Wolfowitz said the United States believes the United Nations can play an important role, especially in humanitarian efforts. But he said the United States and its coalition partners must take the lead, particularly to ensure security before a new Iraqi government is in place.
As the leaders of France, Germany and Russia prepare to hold a summit in Saint Petersburg to discuss post-war Iraq reconstruction, Mr. Wolfowitz said the United States would welcome the assistance of the three nations, which all opposed the war.
He offered one suggestion to France and Germany. "I hope for example they will think about the very large debts that come from money that was lent to the dictator to buy weapons and build palaces and instruments of repression," said Paul Wolfowitz. "I think they ought to consider whether it might not be appropriate to forgive some or all of that debt, so the new Iraqi government is not burdened with it."
Mr. Wolfowitz said he believes there will be a larger coalition involved in the rebuilding effort than there was in the combat effort. He suggested many more nations would be willing to take part in the reconstruction, after seeing the striking television pictures of Iraqis celebrating the end of Saddam Hussein's regime.