Jay Garner, the US civil administrator for Iraq, plunged into the search for local leadership in Baghdad Thursday to work with the US occupation forces in rebuilding the country, saying he hoped to get government ministries up and running from around the end of next week.
Garner held a town meeting for prospective Iraqi leaders but distanced himself from a self-proclaimed governor of Baghdad and stayed cool to Ahmad Chalabi, the best-known opposition leader.
US officials are treating Iraqi politicians here cautiously after ousting Saddam Hussein two weeks ago. The military has threatened would-be leaders with arrest if they challenged US authority, the New York Times reported.
But on the fourth day of his inspection of Iraq's reconstruction needs, Garner held an hour-long meeting with about 60 selected Iraqis here that a US official called "spirited and sometimes emotional."
"Our purpose here in your country is to create an environment for you so that we can begin a process of government that leads to a democratic form in Iraq," the retired US general told the all-male group.
The gathering brought together university professors, government technocrats and other Iraqis, but US officials said they were not necessarily being groomed for posts in an eventual administration.
"When we meet in the town hall we will find out what process the people of Baghdad want to end up with a mayor," British General Tim Cross, Garner's deputy, said before the session at the Baghdad conference center.
Cross, and later Garner, reiterated that Mohammad Mohsen Zubeidi, who claims to have been elected administrator of Baghdad by religious and community officials here, had received no backing from the United States.
"What we are trying to find out is, is that the will of the people of Baghdad?" Cross said of Zubeidi, who has formed 22 committees to run the capital, including two for defense and foreign affairs.
Garner added later: "We told them that the coalition doesn't have a candidate, and if the people of Baghdad are unhappy with him all they have to do is come tell us and we'll ask him to leave, and we'll show him how to leave, so he's not supported by the coalition."
Cross and Garner were also non-committal about the Iraqi National Congress headed by Chalabi, who enjoys Pentagon support back in the United States.
"We're going to start a governmental process here next week that will allow them a forum", Garner said, referring to a meeting of Iraqi opposition figures that had been set for Saturday but was postponed to Monday.
"Mr Chalabi's a fine man, he's not my candidate, he's not the candidate of the coalition. You'll see the leaders emerging in the next week or so and they'll work with us in providing the proper framework so we can get into the democratic process."
Garner also said the self-rule established by the Kurds in the north of Iraq, which he had earlier visited, over the past 12 years beyond the control of Saddam Hussein's regime, could be a model for a future Iraqi government.
But Cross quickly stressed that it was "a" model, and not "the" model.
Youarash Haidou, a retired English teacher and writer who attended the town meeting, told reporters afterward that security was raised as the key issue amid a wave of lootings and vandalism since Saddam was deposed.
"We need security, we need peace, we need law," Haidou said. "He (Garner) said, 'We are trying to do our best.'"
Garner said he had told the town meeting, "We want to reopen the ministries next week."
While the coalition would have a coordinator for each ministry, the administration "would have an Iraqi face on it," he said.
But as they feel their way through the complex world of Iraqi politics, with more than 60 parties operating here, the Americans have made clear to the local population who is in charge.
The New York Times said Lieutenant General David McKiernan, commander of ground forces in Iraq, had issued a proclamation insisting that the US-led coalition "alone retains absolute authority within Iraq."
He warned that anyone posing a threat could be arrested. US forces here had already issued a message to Baghdadis to stay off the streets at night, avoid checkpoints and give the right of way to US vehicles on all roads.
To drive home US control of the capital, Garner attended a barbecue lunch for about 100 people at Saddam's main palace, where they feasted on hamburgers, hot dogs and Cokes.
Garner, 65, later resumed his inspection of the capital, including a stop at the national museum that was looted on April 11 while US troops stood by, an incident that sparked outrage around the world.
An aide, Major General Carl Strock, also told the press conference that coalition forces had restarted some oil and gas production in the north and south of the country to meet Iraqis' needs, and not for export.
"Oil is flowing in the south," Strock said. "We're pumping about 175,000 barrels a day, and we're pumping that to the refinery at Basra and also into the power plants in that vicinity.
"This is strictly for domestic use, for Iraqi internal needs, it's not for export."
Strock, of the US army corps of engineers, said it was also hoped to be pumping some 60,000 barrels a day from Iraq's northern oilfields in a day or two, for the same purposes.
"Gas as well is coming out of the north, we have a gas well operating, and this is critical for the operation of gas turbines which drive most of the electrical grid here in the Baghdad area," he added.
Garner arrived in Iraq on Monday, a month after US-led forces launched their invasion of Iraq that culminated in the fall of Saddam's regime on April 9.
He spent two days in the north, where he received a warm welcome and held talks with Kurdish leaders.