Military to Tap Interim Rulers

Times Staff Writer

Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said Wednesday that the U.S. military will select emerging leaders in postwar Iraq to help create a new Interim Iraqi Authority to replace Saddam Hussein, but the United Nations will not play a leading role in the political transformation.

The United States is scrambling to pull together the first of several meetings of “free Iraqis,” probably to be held next week at an airbase outside Nasiriyah, to debate the form and makeup of the new local and national governments, according to U.S. officials.

Despite strong warnings from European allies about the need for U.N. involvement in all aspects of postwar Iraq, Powell forcefully rejected the prospects of a U.N. supervisory role in the political process during the transition. The U.N. role should instead focus largely on humanitarian aid and reconstruction issues, he said.


“We believe that the coalition, having invested this political capital and life and treasure into this enterprise, we are going to have a leading role for some time as we shape this process. The people of Iraq will have confidence in us because of who we are and what we’ve done,” Powell said in an interview with The Times.

The process Powell outlined, the most extensive glimpse the administration has given about how it will unfold as the war winds down, could spark new transatlantic tensions. At their Belfast summit just a day earlier, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair agreed that the United Nations would have a “vital role.” But Powell made it clear that the world body’s role would be limited.

The United States’ top diplomat, who struggled for months to win U.N. Security Council support for a resolution that would authorize the use of force if Hussein did not comply with U.N. disarmament, said he was “not unmindful” of the contribution allies could make in rebuilding Iraq. But he dismissed recent demands by France, Russia and Germany for a “central” U.N. role in Iraq.

“The suggestion that some of my colleagues would give that now that the coalition has done all of this and liberated Iraq, thank you very much, step aside and the Security Council is now going to become responsible for everything, is incorrect. And they know it. And they were told it,” Powell said.

In a move that could trigger a new confrontation, the United States would instead seek a new U.N. resolution to formally recognize that the U.S.-led coalition is the legitimate governing authority.

“We believe the U.N. has a ‘vital’ role to play and that was a very carefully chosen word. It means the U.N. is very important to the process,” Powell said. “We need an endorsement of the authority and an endorsement of what we’re doing in order to begin selling oil in due course, and in order to make sure that humanitarian supplies continue to flow in for the Oil for Food program.”

He conceded, however, that the U.S. proposal was likely to spark a new round of debates, although he predicted the discussions may take place this time among foreign ministers before it moves to the floor of the Security Council.

Powell also welcomed a possible NATO role in providing peacekeepers, a constabulary force and other assistance. At meetings with NATO last week, Powell noted, not one of the 19 members, including France and Germany, was opposed to a NATO role in Iraq.

Again, however, he said NATO would not replace U.S. Central Command, which has run the war.

Despite the unexpectedly rapid fall of Baghdad, the United States does not intend to hasten the process of transition. Powell acknowledged that the abrupt collapse of central authority is likely to signal a period of chaos as well as celebrations.

“We going to approach this with determination, with a sense of urgency but not with a sense of impatience,” Powell added.

U.S. military officers have already taken the lead in selecting a new generation of leaders to participate in the postwar transformation of Iraq’s political system.

“This is the time you just turn your soldiers loose. They’re starting to identify who in a community are the leaders and traditionally have been leaders for long, long periods of time,” Powell said. “Who do people look to? They look to tribal leaders. They look to religious leaders. You start to build on that.”

The first meeting will include representatives of the six major exile groups plus at least 39 Iraqis who have emerged “in the course of liberation as civilian leaders and are sympathetic to the idea of forming a democratic government” and willing to participate in it, a senior State Department source said Wednesday. Others may still be added.

“The idea is to let them brainstorm and see how they interact,” the source said. “We’ll throw them in the pot and see how it comes out.” the official source said.

The White House has designated special presidential envoy Zalmay Khalilzad to preside over the talks with Iraqis on self-governance, along with Deputy Assistant Secretary of State Ryan Crocker and a Pentagon official.

The phased process is likely to end up with an Iraqi conference in Baghdad to decide the final membership of the post-Hussein authority that will gradually share governing powers with the U.S. civil administration until elections can be held to elect a permanent government, U.S. officials say.

But the United States does not intend to determine the composition of the interim government or the division of power between exile opposition groups and Iraqis who have stayed throughout Hussein’s 24-year rule.

“As to what the balance will be between outsiders and insiders, and how many will there be and how many Kurds and how many Sunni and how many Shia, all of these are superb questions, but we don’t have the answers yet as ultimately this will be determined by the Iraqis,” Powell said. He said the fall of Hussein sends a strong signal to other authoritarian governments involved in producing the world’s deadliest arsenals.

“We believe that all of these nations -- Syria, Iran, others -- should realize that pursuing weapons of mass destruction, supporting terrorist activities, is not in their interest,” Powell said. He noted, however, that this does not necessarily mean that the United States intends to launch military actions against them.

The administration is already coming under criticism, even from Republicans, for not adequately detailing its plans for postwar Iraq.

“The thought that all this planning can spin on forever without our [congressional] intervention is nonsense. It won’t,” Sen. Richard G. Lugar, (R-Ind.), chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, told reporters Wednesday.

“We are going to have to bring this to some cohesion even if we have to deliberate among ourselves. My hope is that there will be responsible administration officials who will inform us and the American people on what we are going to do so we can debate these things,” Lugar said.


Times staff writers Nick Anderson and Maura Reynolds contributed to this report.


Transcripts and audio of the Times interview with Colin Powell are available online at: