WASHINGTON – Although administration officials say Operation Iraqi Freedom is far from over, the White House is searching far and wide for Iraqi exiles and internal critics of Saddam Hussein to plan an interim government to succeed the long-held dictatorship.
Discussion will include all parties interested in what should happen next in Iraq. Special White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad is overseeing the talks.
"You would have an increasing number of Iraqis from inside the country, outside the country, involved in this process of discussing their vision, of discussing their hopes, and discussing their plans," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said Wednesday.
With one regime stronghold after another falling to coalition control, the immediate focus is the formation of an interim authority and preparing for a conference that would actually set it up, Boucher said.
Many Iraqi exiles are reportedly returning to their homeland in hopes of being leaders in the new government. Many Iraqi-Americans also have hopes of returning to the country to help make history as their government is reborn.
Vice President Dick Cheney told the American Society of Newspaper Editors in New Orleans that the first meeting would be held Saturday near the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah.
Although the time and place had not been set, Jay M. Garner, the retired lieutenant general who heads the Pentagon's new Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, will attend.
"Our objective," Cheney said, "is to just as quickly as possible get this interim authority up and running that's composed of Iraqis and transfer authority to them."
Cheney said authority would not be given to the United Nations or to any other outside group -- a point of deep disagreement with some European countries that want the U.N. to play the dominant role in postwar Iraq.
The United States maintains that the United Nations can help all it wants in humanitarian efforts but that the Iraqi people are fully able to set up a government mostly on their own.
"It'll probably take time," Cheney said, but the aim is to "begin to put together that political structure that ultimately, hopefully, will result in a new representative government for the people of Iraq."
The main priority of the interim government will be to make sure humanitarian relief is given to the many cities throughout Iraq in desperate need of water, food and medicine.
But putting together a new Iraqi government won't be easy. None of the Iraqis who would participate has shed any tears for Saddam or his regime, but they are a diverse ethnic and religious mix.
The Bush team has said it wants Iraqis of all persuasions to work together and turn the Arab country into a democracy.
"It's been a very consistent position of the United States that the future of Iraq needs to be decided by the Iraqi people, and needs to be decided by a very wide range of Iraqi people so that all the different groups, all the different regions, all the different areas and cities of Iraq are represented in the transition," Boucher said.
Then, he said, it is the hope that "the Iraqi people get their own chance through elections to decide who their representatives will be."
Both Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair on Thursday appeared in a televised address broadcasted throughout Iraq.
They had a strong message for the Iraqi people: Saddam's regime is over and coalition forces won't spend one day more than they have to in the country once an Iraqi government is up and running.
"Your nation will soon be free," Bush said, as Blair assured Iraqis that coalition soldiers are "friends and liberators, not your conquerors."
"The goals of our coalition are clear and limited," Bush said. He said they included, ending Saddam's regime, ridding the nation of weapons of mass destruction, providing security, respecting religious traditions, building a representative government and creating a sovereign nation.
"The nightmare that Saddam Hussein has brought to your nation will soon be over," the president said. "You deserve to live as free people. And I assure every citizen of Iraq: Your nation will soon be free."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.