WASHINGTON—With a decision about war perhaps only days off, the Bush administration has yet to spell out much of a vision of what would happen once war in Iraq ended, saying only that U.S. troops would liberate the nation but not linger.
Many details remain hidden from the public eye, and even from Congress. How long might U.S. forces remain in Iraq? Who would run an interim government? How big a bill will be slapped on U.S. taxpayers?
A key Pentagon planner, one of a core group of Bush administration hawks who are pushing for the removal of Saddam Hussein, reiterated Tuesday that U.S. forces wouldn't get mired in Iraq.
"Our goal is liberation, not occupation," Pentagon Undersecretary for Policy Douglas J. Feith wrote in a letter published in the Washington Post. He said the Bush administration "does not aspire to control and govern Iraq."
Who would govern Iraq, and its fractious ethnic, religious and tribal groups, is not clear.
Some legislators complain that the administration has put only the vaguest of price tags on a war and has squabbled publicly over how many U.S. troops might have to remain in Iraq to keep the peace, and for how long.
"Information seems to come out grudgingly," said Sen. Lincoln Chafee, R-R.I., who chairs a Senate subcommittee on near eastern affairs that oversees Iraq.
When the Senate Foreign Relations Committee asked U.S. officials responsible for postwar planning on Iraq to a hearing three weeks ago, Chafee said, "It was difficult to get a straight answer."
The administration apparently sees little need to offer details, he added: "They feel that they have enough support now that they don't want to complicate it with specifics."
In his letter, Feith reiterated a view common among administration hawks, but not universally shared by officials in the CIA, the State Department and the military, that Iraqis would organize their own new government once they were rid of Saddam, who has ruled since 1979.
"We believe that Iraqis, when free, will rightly insist on setting up their own government," Feith wrote, adding that Washington would assist in setting up "a broad-based, representative government" that would hold Iraq together, shun weapons of mass destruction and end support for terrorists.
It also isn't clear, however, what form U.S. assistance might take.
The administration has learned in Afghanistan the difficulties of rebuilding a nation. In light of that, it has launched vast planning for a post-Saddam era.
But its efforts are plagued by uncertainty over how a war might unfold, whether Iraqi forces would destroy oil fields and other installations, how much the global community might help in rebuilding the oil-rich nation, whether various factions among Iraq's 25 million people might battle among themselves and whether outsiders such as Turkey and Iran might try to intervene.
An unusual public dispute erupted last week over how many U.S. troops would be needed to secure postwar Iraq.
During a Senate Armed Services committee hearing Feb. 25, lawmakers asked the Army's chief of staff, Gen. Eric K. Shinseki, about postwar demands in Iraq and he responded that "several hundred thousand soldiers" probably would be required.
Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld and his deputy, Paul Wolfowitz, later disparaged Shinseki's assertion as "far" and "wildly" off the mark, saying that no more than 100,000 or so troops would be needed.
Some experts, however, favor the larger estimates. Michael E. O'Hanlon, a defense strategy expert at the Brookings Institution, a nonpartisan policy research organization, said 150,000 to 200,000 troops might be needed initially to sweep up resistance, establish order and find hidden weapons. A second phase, from 2004 until 2006, could require more than 100,000 troops, he said, dwindling to some 50,000 soldiers in subsequent years.
A lengthy American deployment in Iraq could strain U.S. military capacity. The Pentagon, which has seen troop strength fall to 1.3 million in recent years, faces continuing demands in Afghanistan, a crisis with North Korea, a global war against terrorism and deepening involvement in Colombia's drug war.
Rumsfeld has declined to offer estimates of the cost of an Iraqi war and reconstruction. Outside experts have pegged the price tag at anywhere from $60 billion to more than $1 trillion.
The cost depends on such factors as whether some Iraqis resist a post-Saddam order, how long it takes to set up working political and legal systems and whether the oil industry is partially destroyed in fighting.
Veteran legislators say U.S. taxpayers certainly would face a significant burden from Iraq.
"Americans should be prepared for expenses," said Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., the chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee. "There are going to be lots of people and materials involved."
Many of the challenges that could emerge in a postwar Iraq may become apparent quickly.
"If we are generally welcomed as liberators, if we can control some of the inner tensions among the Iraqis, clearly it's a different kind of problem than if things go badly," said Mark Parris, a retired ambassador to Turkey and former National Security Council expert on Iraq.
"The key moment will come four months out, when Iraqis are either working with us and putting us out of a job, or some element is shooting at us," Parris said.
After Saddam's removal, American forces would act in stages, Feith told a Senate panel Feb. 11. As U.S. troops scrubbed the nation for chemical and biological weapons, they also would be acquiring data on links to terrorist groups, he said.
American soldiers then would focus on ensuring that neighboring countries or rebellious Kurds didn't try to dismember Iraq.
The economic and political reconstruction would take place under the purview of Gen. Tommy Franks, chief of the U.S. Central Command, and a retired Army lieutenant general, Jay M. Garner, who would become the civilian head of reconstruction and humanitarian programs in postwar Iraq, Feith said.
(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondent Jessica Guynn contributed to this report.)
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.