WASHINGTON - With the collapse of Saddam Hussein's regime in Baghdad, the United States found itself responsible yesterday for the difficult job of restarting essential government functions in Iraq and eventually replacing the dictatorship with representative rule.
Facing a mounting humanitarian crisis and pockets of resistance, U.S. officials will attempt to restart Iraqi ministries and stitch together an interim government drawn from a mix of Shiites, Sunnis and Kurds, whose sectarian and tribal rivalries have been suppressed for two decades by Hussein's iron fist.
But the Bush administration is moving quickly to reach out to potential Iraqi leaders, to demonstrate to the world and a skeptical Middle East that it does not intend a long occupation of the country.
"History will judge us, and hopefully the people of the region will judge us, based upon what happens next in Iraq and how we conduct ourselves going forward in whether or not we keep the commitment ... to establish a viable, representative, democratic government in Iraq and to withdraw our forces just as quickly as we can," Vice President Dick Cheney said yesterday in New Orleans at a meeting of newspaper editors.
A team headed by Jay Garner, a retired general who runs the Pentagon's office for Iraqi aid and reconstruction, will fly to Baghdad as soon as security permits to oversee the return of goods and services.
Garner, who will likely become the most powerful person in Iraq, reports to Gen. Tommy Franks, the overall war commander and head of the U.S. Central Command.
Garner will also work to restart government ministries, eliminating the top ranks of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party loyalists but luring lower-level Iraqi civil servants back to work alongside U.S. advisers. That work has been made more difficult by the American bombing of many ministry headquarters and by subsequent looting.
He plans to install three area "coordinators" for northern and southern Iraq and the capital, who will bring in about 100 Iraqi exiles to begin work on reconstruction and meeting humanitarian needs.
"General Garner has got an enormously difficult task to get all of these things up and running free of ... Baathist influence at the top," Deputy Secretary of State Richard Armitage said yesterday.
By some measures, the job will be easier than the tasks the United States and its allies faced in late 2001 in Afghanistan, where they began trying to create a modern, functioning society in a nation where virtually all government functions had ceased to exist.
"Unlike Afghanistan, Iraq is not a failed state," Armitage said in an interview with a small group of reporters. "It was a torturous oppressive state, but it had education. Where Afghanistan was about 20 percent literate, here we're over 60 percent literate. They have a very well-developed middle class. And you have capable technocrats below ... leadership levels in, I think, every ministry,"
One of Garner's most sensitive jobs will be restarting Iraq's oil industry, which many of America's critics in the region charge is the real prize sought by the United States, and then turning it over to Iraqi control.
Armitage predicted that the bulk of Iraq's oilfields would soon come under U.S. and allied control, enabling repairs to begin that could take a couple of months to complete.
"We want to get in the situation where the energy ministry is able to be run, by and large, by Iraqis with some coalition advice," Armitage said. "And any revenues that are realized would go into the Central Bank - the Central Bank of Iraq, not the Central Bank of the United States - to be used by Iraqis for reconstruction."
The United States intends to convene a meeting in coming days where special envoys Zalmay Khalilzad and Ryan Crocker will meet with local Iraqis and political factions from outside Iraq to lay the foundation of a provisional government.
"We will bring together representatives of groups from all over Iraq to begin to sit down and talk about planning for the future of this Iraqi interim authority and getting it up and running," Cheney told the newspaper editors.
The regional gathering is intended to be the first of several to be held throughout the country. It will be followed by a bigger national conference in Baghdad that is intended to create what is called the Interim Iraqi Authority.
The leaders of France, Germany and Russia plan two days of meetings in St. Petersburg, Russia, beginning tomorrow, where the question of how to respond to the U.S.-led occupation of Iraq is sure to be high on the agenda.
With a power vacuum in much of Iraq, the challenge for the United States in administering the country and creating a democracy is getting under way amid confusion and uncertainty about lines of authority.
British troops, who have overcome resistance in Basra, have installed a sheik to develop a local leadership council in the city, Iraq's second-largest after Baghdad.
In Nasiriyah, a lightly armed group of 500 to 700 Iraqi exiles led by Iraqi National Congress head Ahmad Chalaby has encamped at a U.S. base and launched what Chalaby called a campaign of "de-Baathification."
Chalaby, who has close ties with civilian officials in the Pentagon and aides to Vice President Cheney, has assumed the role of advocate for the beleaguered local population in what some believe is a bid for a major leadership role in the country.
In a CNN interview yesterday, Chalaby demanded that Garner quickly leave Kuwait and enter Iraq.
"Where is General Garner now?" he asked. "The people need assistance here in Nasiriyah. Why are they not here? Why don't they work to rehabilitate the electricity and water?"
Cheney and Chalaby both said the regional meeting would be held Saturday in Nasiriyah, but the State Department later said that neither the date nor location has been fixed.
"It's a matter of getting organized for a meeting in a safe place, and in a more methodical manner than some exile groups would like us to," one senior official said.
The United States has refused to give the United Nations the key role in administering postwar Iraq that was envisioned by Britain and European countries, but officials here welcomed the appointment of a special adviser by Secretary-General Kofi Annan.
The adviser, Rafeeuddin Ahmed, a Pakistani, is expected to assist in the search for local Iraqi leaders capable of participating in the interim authority.