WASHINGTON - Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld played down speculation yesterday that Shiite Muslims would rise as a dominant and anti-American force in Iraq, while once again warning Iran not to meddle in the creation of a postwar government in Baghdad.
During this week's pilgrimage of hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites to the holy city of Karbala, protesters denounced the United States, called on U.S. forces to leave the country and pressed for the creation of an Islamic state.
Rumsfeld, speaking with reporters at the Pentagon, said the demonstrations were "a sign that Iraqis are embracing that right of free speech."
Most Iraqis, he suggested, are pleased to be rid of Saddam Hussein's regime and want the U.S.-led forces to help provide security, stability and aid in the creation of a democratic government.
"And then they will want us to leave, to be sure, and that's what we would want as well," he said.
For the second time in as many days, Rumsfeld warned Iran's fundamentalist Islamic government not to send operatives into Iraq to incite Shiite Muslims, who represent a majority of Iraq's population, or to try to help establish a radical Islamic regime.
"A vocal minority clamoring to transform Iraq in Iran's image will not be permitted to do so," he said. "We will not allow the Iraqi people's democratic transition to be hijacked by those who might wish to install another form of dictatorship."
U.S. Marines have begun to patrol the border with Iran, trying to bar any Iranian agents from entering Iraq.
Earlier this week, Rumsfeld declared that the United States would not tolerate any Islamic regime in Iraq similar to Iran's.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said.
Adopting a softer tone, Secretary of State Colin L. Powell said this week that Muslims could play a role in Iraq's new government so long as they embraced democracy, which the Bush administration said would be the foundation of a new leadership.
"There are Islamic countries that are having elections - Pakistan, Turkey," Powell said in an interview Thursday with al-Arabiya, a television station based in Dubai. "There are some people who say: 'Well, because you're practicing Islam you can't allow people to choose how they will be governed politically.' I don't think Islam presents that."
It is not clear how much Shiite-dominated Iran is influencing the calls by some Iraqi clerics for the creation of an Iranian-style theocracy and for U.S. forces to leave. Yesterday, during the main day of Muslim prayers, hundreds of worshippers sat on a boulevard in Nasiriyah and listened to a cleric declare that Iraqis must unite to build an Islamic state.
Clovis Maksoud, a former ambassador with the League of Arab States at the United Nations and a professor at American University, said that Rumsfeld's sharp tone toward Iran "is a language of dictating and not persuading" and fails to recognize that Iran represents a religious "anchor" for Shiites."
Iraqi Shiites, Maksoud said, are understandably eager to flex their political muscle. "They are now feeling an opportunity for empowerment, not [necessarily] Shia monopoly."
Rumsfeld was asked whether it was really Iran that was influencing the Shiites or whether Muslims in Iraq were "speaking from the heart" for the creation of a government based on Islamic law.
"There's no question but that the government of Iran has encouraged people to go into the country and that they have people in the country attempting to influence the country," he said.
"My impression is that the Shia in the country are Iraqis, and the Shia outside the country, from Iran, are Persians. And my guess is that the Iraqi people will prefer to be governed by Iraqis and not by Persians."
Michael O'Hanlon, a defense analyst at the Brookings Institution, said Rumsfeld was right to play down the significance of the Muslim protests in Iraq, saying there is "a little too much nervousness toward them."
Still, O'Hanlon said, U.S. officials must craft a strategy for preventing any Iraqis from taking advantage of the political vacuum and installing themselves in power.
Tensions had been high this week in the city of Kut between U.S. troops and the followers of a Shiite cleric who claimed control of that southern city until he was forced out of town by U.S. Marines yesterday. And in Baghdad, Muhammad Mohsen Zobeidi, an Iraqi exile living until recently in London, appointed himself mayor and has rebuffed efforts by U.S. military officials to oust him.
"You have to have a clear strategy, which we don't yet have," O'Hanlon said, suggesting that U.S. officials might have to serve as "king-makers" and appoint temporary administrators in cities and towns.
U.S. officials in Iraq are sponsoring meetings that are being used as a step toward creating an interim authority that would, in turn, create a process - such as drafting a constitution - leading to a new government.
At the first meeting, in Nasiriyah on April 15, some Shiites were included in the group of about 100 leaders chosen by U.S. officials. Other Shiite clerics complained that they had been shut out and protested with hundreds of their followers.
The next meeting is slated for Baghdad on Monday. In another possible sign of trouble, Sayyed Ali al-Kathimi al-Waethi, a key Shiite cleric, said the sect's highest authority would refuse to meet with the Americans in charge.
Rumsfeld said he was uncertain when an interim authority might be set up, noting that it must have "enough people representing enough elements in that country."
"Whatever is set up will be interim," he said. "It will serve for a period. And it will be as representative as is possible in a situation like we find in Iraq. These are not people who have enjoyed democracy. They don't have political parties. They're not organized for this."
Maksoud, the American University professor, cautioned that the United States must work to forge a government as quickly as possible under United Nations auspices, something the Bush administration has rejected. Without the United Nations, Maksoud suggested, "the legitimacy will be questioned."
Commenting on the capture this week of Tariq Aziz, the former Iraqi deputy prime minister, and Farouk Hijazi, the former intelligence chief, Rumsfeld said such developments could lead to still other leaders - as well as information about weapons of mass destruction and links between Hussein's regime and terrorists.
"There are people who, in large measure, have information that we need," Rumsfeld said.
The defense secretary said 135,000 U.S. forces remain in Iraq, most of them Army and Marine ground forces, along with 23,000 allied forces, most of them British. Asked whether the number of U.S. forces in the region would rise or fall in coming weeks, he said:
"The plan is to increase the number of U.S. forces, if they're necessary, and to decrease them if they're not necessary, to get as many other countries participating - coalition forces - in there as I possibly can, and to the extent I can, have fewer U.S. forces, and to the extent I cannot, have more U.S. force."