WASHINGTON - Iraqis will be free to form their own government as long as it is not an Iranian-style theocracy, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Thursday.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said in an interview with The Associated Press.
Speaking in his Pentagon conference room, Rumsfeld also said that U.S. and British forces are searching for many more former members of the Saddam Hussein regime than the 55 on a "most wanted" list.
"In fact we have a list of some 200," he said. "That original list was purposely kept low at the outset because we wanted to separate the worst people from the regime, hoping that others would come forward."
Rumsfeld said more of the top 55 have been captured in the past day or so than have been made public. He said their identities will be revealed as soon as they are confirmed through interrogation or other means.
Rumsfeld, who is scheduled to visit Iraq soon, painted a mostly optimistic picture of progress in stabilizing the country and moving it in the direction of establishing a new government.
As evidence of progress, he said humanitarian aid groups which specialize in emergency care are now leaving Iraq "because there is not an emergency," in terms of food and water supplies.
He would not predict how long U.S. and allied military forces would remain in Iraq.
"The next step is to see that the Iraqi people begin to be involved in their communities and in the development of a national government," he said. He said this is beginning to happen and cited as an example the joint Iraqi-U.S. security patrols carried out in some areas.
He urged caution and patience as Iraq establishes first an "interim authority" in Baghdad, to be followed by a full-fledged government and a mechanism for drafting a national constitution.
Rumsfeld quoted Thomas Jefferson: "You don't go from despotism to freedom on a featherbed."
"There will be the beginning of an interim authority soon," he said. "I don't know quite what `soon' means." He added: "It's a little early to be impatient about it, so I can't be impatient, although the natural thing is to be impatient about it. You want the Iraqis to govern themselves."
© 2003 The Associated Press