Deputy Defense Secretary Paul Wolfowitz, outlining postwar plans Thursday to the Senate Armed Services Committee, cautioned that any proposals for running Iraq were subject to change "when we get on the ground."
He offered no details about how long it would take for an interim government to be formed and take charge, how many U.S. troops and civilians would have to remain in Iraq after the war, or how long they would stay.
Wolfowitz said the Pentagon envisions parallel ministries led by Americans and Iraqis running postwar Iraq until an interim government can be established.
Responsibility for overseeing public services, such as health care and electricity, would gradually shift from the U.S.-led ministries to the Iraqi ones, he said.
Gen. Tommy Franks, who is running the war, will host the "town hall" meetings, Wolfowitz said, organized in partnership with the three coalition countries that have troops on the ground. The United Nations and other coalition countries are being invited to attend as observers, Wolfowitz said.
"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," he said.
Lawmakers are increasingly complaining about not being informed of the Bush administration's postwar plans. Some have criticized the administration for not allowing Jay Garner, the retired general who will initially administer Iraq, to appear before Congress.
Garner was criticized this week for comments blaming Palestinians for Middle East bloodshed — remarks that could inflame Arabs who will already be suspicious of any extended U.S. presence in the region.
The appearance of Wolfowitz and two top generals only partly satisfied lawmakers. Committee Chairman John Warner, R-Va., a strong supporter of President Bush's war leadership, asked the officials to provide more details about the plans in writing — including more information about Garner.
Wolfowitz also sought to ease senators' conflicting concerns about the United Nations' postwar role.
Some senators, mostly Democrats, favor a strong international role in Iraq to add legitimacy to the postwar government and share the costs of reconstruction. Others, mostly Republicans, hesitate to give too much authority to the United Nations, after the United States failed to win support for the war.
Wolfowitz said the U.N. role would be determined by the war coalition, the Iraqi people and U.N. members. But echoing Warner's words, Wolfowitz said "It can't be the managing partner. It can't be in charge."
"What we're trying to avoid is a situation that we've seen in other places of the world where Iraq might become a sort of permanent ward of the international community," he said. "There's no reason for that to happen."
Asked about a meeting by Russia, France and Germany to discuss Iraq, Wolfowitz said he hoped they would consider debt relief for Iraq.
Earlier this week, President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair met for talks in Belfast, and later said the U.N. should play a vital role in rebuilding Iraq, but they did not go into details.
Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov said Friday that Russia was hoping that the U.N. would play "the central role."
"The United Nations is endowed with unique powers that other international organizations do not have," said Ivanov, who was attending a meeting of foreign ministers from former Soviet republics in Tajikistan. "These powers are necessary to use in order to quickly find the route to normalizing the situation in Iraq."
U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan was planning to be in St. Petersburg on Saturday as part of a European tour, but abruptly canceled the visit. Analysts said Annan changed his mind for fear that his trip could be construed as an anti-American gesture.
Tensions over the postwar plans exist not only between some in Congress and the White House or between the U.S. and other countries, but also within the administration itself — between the State Department and the Pentagon, over who will take the lead role in the war's aftermath.
Questions are also being raised about which Iraqis will take prominent roles in the postwar administration.
Ahmed Chalabi, a prominent exile who has recently reentered Iraq accompanied by a reported 700 fighters, is favored by some Republicans. But he has not lived in Iraq for any length of time since the late 1950s and his Iraqi National Congress has been probed for mishandling U.S. government funds.