The Bush administration has quietly begun planning the transition to a new government in Baghdad, built around a leader emerging from inside Iraq and a foreign military presence flexible enough to meet challenges in the country's three distinct regions, according to senior administration officials.
In contrast to military plans that are already on President Bush's desk, the transition planning is still in a very early stage. But it reflects the growing sense of inevitability about both a conflict with Iraq and a regime change, even though Bush has not yet made the decision to go to war.
It also reflects growing pressure from Congress and U.S. allies to address problems that might come up after a conflict in the historically unstable country.
"Militarily, it may not be that difficult for the United States. The problems will start afterward. It will be a lot more difficult than in Afghanistan," said Remy Leveau, a former French diplomat in the Middle East now at the Institute for Political Studies in Paris.
In Europe and the Middle East, government officials have been concerned for months about whether the United States has thought through the long-term challenges of reshaping Iraq and the danger that ethnic, religious and tribal tensions could pull the country apart.
To address those issues, the National Security Council and the State Department were directed last month to develop a transition plan. Although the process is embryonic, the working assumptions and tentative conclusions underscore how different the process would be from dealing with Afghanistan after the ouster of the ruling Taliban there.
In a bid to prevent political fissures, the U.S. goal is to help create a federal democracy that would allow the various regions and tribes some degree of autonomy.
"There would be some effort at reconciliation and some commitment to a single state that is not broken up into three pieces, that will have a representative, democratic model as its political basis," Secretary of State Colin L. Powell told the Senate Foreign Relations Committee last week.
"We shouldn't deceive ourselves--in our conversations on this subject, we recognize that we are on the cusp of a very, very demanding and long-term commitment if we go down this road," he said. "It will take time, and I can't tell you how many years."
Powell also conceded that trying to "raise up a government" from Iraqis both in the country and in exile would not quickly produce a model democracy.
U.S. planners now oppose either a government-in-exile or a candidate emerging from within the opposition based outside the country to replace President Saddam Hussein.
Instead, they favor allowing events on the ground to play the biggest role in determining the new leadership, with the U.S.-backed opposition largely in a supporting role, U.S. officials say.
"We know that there's a strong possibility that either an individual or group of leaders inside Iraq could emerge with sizable support and look like the natural leaders, the natural next wave," said an administration official.
Added a State Department official: "No Hamid Karzai is going to be anointed beforehand," a reference to the militia commander who was selected at an international conference to lead Afghanistan.
The new focus is due in part to the administration's assumption that an invasion would probably lead to the death of Hussein--either during the confrontation or, more likely, at the hands of one of his inner circle--the sources added.
The first Bush administration and the Clinton administration made similar assumptions, which failed to become reality in the 11 years after the 1991 Persian Gulf War. But U.S. planners predict the odds would increase sharply if the fate of those around Hussein also hung in the balance.
In a bid to hold the fractious country together during the transition, the United States is exploring the possibility of using three or more leaders from Iraq's main ethnic and religious communities to jointly run the country until elections can be held.
Pentagon officials are still pressing for these leaders to come from the established opposition, who are known to U.S. officials. But those officials are now in the minority, administration sources say.
At the same time, the State Department is bringing together more than a dozen opposition groups, as well as individual Iraqis in exile, to make plans for the transition.
Since July, four groups have been meeting in the United States and Europe to work on issues ranging from a transitional justice system to new principles for an Iraqi federation.
"They have great ideas, and a lot of them will be ones we endorse and hope to see incorporated in a new Iraq, but they are nonbinding, exploratory discussions," said the State Department official.
European allies and other key players are skeptical about the prospects for establishing a democracy any time soon in a region where democracy is largely unknown.
"The worry is that any successor to Saddam Hussein is likely to be another military dictator," said British lawmaker Phyllis Starkey of Prime Minister Tony Blair's Labor Party.
To help ensure stability, administration planners say the role of foreign troops should vary by region.
The largest foreign intervention would be in the central region around Baghdad, the stronghold of the ruling Baath Party, U.S. officials say. One of the key questions is how deep to cut into government ministries, the military, public institutions and even government-run businesses.
"It's like the Communist Party in the Soviet Union. You had to be a member to get a good job or a promotion, even in universities. Does that mean you have to fire all university professors who belonged to the Baath Party? Obviously not," said a well-placed U.S. official. "That applies to every branch of government, including the military. After all, there are a lot of former Communists running the new Russia. But you do have to remove key players and symbols of the regime."
In mountainous northern Kurdistan, the main foreign military role would probably be protecting the oil fields at Kirkuk and Mosul and ensuring that they did not become targets of rival groups trying to establish spheres of influence, U.S. officials say.
But there would be less need for foreign forces to fill a political or security vacuum, because the two main Kurdish parties, both of which are part of the U.S.-backed opposition, have already begun their own political transitions. They have their own security forces, which have been partly protected from Hussein's army by the "no-fly" zones patrolled by U.S. and British warplanes.
The big question mark concerns a foreign role in the southern desert and marshes, which are dominated by Shiite Muslims.
"This is the region we know least about," said the well-placed source.
The U.S. role in this region is likely to range from protecting Iraq's other large oil fields to dealing with humanitarian problems. Those would probably include a massive migration, both of returning refugees and of displaced people forced out of the marshes by Hussein's regime.
Wright reported from Washington and Rotella from Paris.