WASHINGTON—In another sign that the United States is preparing for military action in Iraq, the Bush administration has accelerated planning for a new Iraqi government and for emergency aid programs that would follow Saddam Hussein's ouster, according to American officials.
Proposals for a lengthy U.S. military occupation of Iraq, modeled on the post-World War II occupation of Japan, have been dropped, the officials said. Top aides to President Bush now envision a United Nations-led administration after an American-led invasion to topple Saddam's regime. The civil administration would be buttressed by U.S. troops and roughly modeled on similar U.N. bodies that helped stabilize Kosovo and East Timor.
A council of Iraqis opposed to Saddam, drawn from inside the country and from expatriate groups, eventually would take power, the American officials said.
Under an alternate plan that still has not been ruled out, the administration would be run by the NATO alliance, with heavy participation from NATO's new Eastern European members, one official said.
The post-Saddam blueprints, which are still evolving, appear to represent a much smaller role for Iraqi expatriate groups that had received strong backing from Congress and the Pentagon in the past.
The White House recently has come down in favor of a greater role for Iraqis who are still in the country, said a State Department official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
That settled for now a long-standing battle between the Pentagon and the State Department, which has been suspicious of the Iraqi exiles.
The exiled Iraqi opposition groups, which have feuded over the years, are holding a much-delayed meeting in London this weekend in a show of unity.
The Iraqi exiles "are brave men, who have taken great risks," said Sandy Berger, who was President Clinton's national security adviser.
"They're going to want a seat at that table" of power, after Saddam goes, Berger said. But, he said, "it's going to be a very large table."
The stepped-up U.S. planning on the political, security and economic future of Iraq provides additional evidence that Bush is moving toward invading the country, and that his aides are grappling with the multifaceted crisis that could follow.
The Deputies Committee, a White House-led group of deputy Cabinet officers who deal with national security matters, meets weekly to discuss Iraq plans. Much of the planning, particularly on emergency aid, is taking place out of public view to avoid giving away Bush's hand.
But U.S. officials confirmed they have been in back-channel talks with the United Nations and private humanitarian groups about dealing with a likely emergency of immense proportions.
In a replay of the 1991 Persian Gulf War, as many as 1.5 million Iraqis could seek refuge in neighboring Turkey, Iran and Jordan, according to U.N. estimates.
Many Iraqis could be at risk of hunger or even starvation. Most of Iraq's 25 million people rely on rations handed out under a U.N.-monitored program in which Iraq sells oil to buy food, medicine and other supplies.
"If you have a period of hostilities, that can break down," said one U.S. aid official, who requested anonymity, saying he had been ordered not to talk about relief preparations.
Assuming there is a lightning U.S. military attack that damages Iraq's infrastructure extensively, "you have to start pre-planning ahead of time how you're going to deal with that it in a quick-step way," the official said.
Additional relief supplies have not yet been positioned, but some already are cached in the region around Iraq, the official said.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees has begun talks with governments in the region and international donors about dealing with a refugee crisis.
"We are engaged in these discussions and seeking help from donors" to position supplies, said John Frederiksson, the coordinator for external relations in UNHCR's Washington office. U.N. Secretary General Kofi Annan hopes for a peaceful solution to the Iraq problem, Frederiksson emphasized.
Many experts on Iraq think an American invasion could trigger a violent struggle for power in the multiethnic country, with Shiite and Sunni Muslims, Kurds and other groups vying for control of portions of the country and settling old scores by force.
There is also uncertainty over how invading U.S. military forces would be received by the populace, which is widely thought to despise Saddam but also mistrusts outsiders.
Former U.S. diplomat Joe Wilson, charge d'affaires in Baghdad on the eve of the 1991 Gulf War, said opposition among the Iraqi populace to an American occupation force "would begin almost immediately."
U.S. troops probably would face daily attacks from snipers in urban areas and possibly a guerrilla war in the countryside, Wilson said. "Occupation begets disaffection," he said.
Bush administration officials and those advising them contend that those problems can be eased by the way in which the United States conducts the invasion and transition to a post-Saddam Iraq.
Kenneth Pollack, a former CIA and White House expert on Iraq who is advising the administration, called the figure of 1.5 million refugees "a reasonable estimate, but one that is susceptible to U.S. influence."
For example, he said, American forces could move on Baghdad quickly, before Saddam has the chance to evict that city's large Shiite population.
A U.N. administration, rather than a U.S.-led occupation, is likely to garner more support from the populace and attract more aid from nongovernmental organizations, known as NGOs, Pollack said.
A U.S. occupation of Iraq led by an American general "is going to frighten off all the NGOs" as well as potential donors to Iraq's eventual reconstruction, he said.
U.S. officials and some Iraqi expatriates say the problems also can be mitigated by giving a large governing role to Iraqis now in the country, who are likely to resent the imposition of rule by compatriots who have been outside Iraq for years.
"I don't want to create a rift between Iraqis outside and inside," said Hatem Mukhlis, a leading independent Iraqi opposition figure who, with three others, has met twice with Bush's national security adviser, Condoleezza Rice.
On the question of a U.N. civil administration, Mukhlis said it would be "the difference between an occupation and (an) American `presence.'"
"Everything has to be temporary" and lead to a transfer of power to a sovereign Iraqi council, he said.
In devising a transition Iraqi authority, U.S. officials are drawing on their experience in Afghanistan. In that case, Washington pushed a process that included a conference in Bonn, Germany, that selected a transition authority led by chairman Hamid Karzai.
But Karzai's government still has little writ beyond the Afghan capital, Kabul, and Bush has been criticized both here and abroad for not committing more American troops and money to rebuilding Afghanistan.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Drew Brown contributed to this report.)
(c) 2002, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.