Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz reassured a strongly pro-war meeting of Iraqi Americans here today that the Bush administration wants to see a democratic Iraq and will not settle for replacing Iraqi President Saddam Hussein with someone similar.
"It's not going to be handed over to some junior Saddam Hussein," he told the group of about 300, predominantly adherents of the Shiite branch of Islam. "We're not interested in replacing one dictator with another dictator."
He added later, "We have one of the most powerful military forces ever assembled" now on the borders of Iraq. "If we commit those forces, we're not going to commit them for anything less than a free and democratic Iraq."
Wolfowitz, the Pentagon's No. 2 official, also became its highest-ranking recruiter today, inviting those meeting here to join the U.S. military reserves and serve as interpreters in Iraq, an idea that some in the group greeted with enthusiasm.
But in a two-hour "town meeting," Wolfowitz also found himself peppered with skeptical questions about the reliability of U.S. promises, given what questioners portrayed as a poor U.S. record in the Middle East. Many in the meeting, which was sponsored by the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, a political group based in Ann Arbor, Mich., said they were veterans of the 1991 uprisings in the north and south of Iraq that followed the Gulf War and were put down violently by Hussein's military.
Wolfowitz, one of the administration's leading hawks on Iraq, also frequently found himself in the unusual position of being urged to swift action, as if he were overly dovish. "It is not a very good idea to wait much longer," one questioner admonished him.
Wolfowitz agreed that time is growing short to find an outcome other than war, suggesting that a decision may be just days away. "Our president is still trying to see -- not in months, but in weeks, maybe less -- if there is a peaceful way to resolve the conflict, a peaceful way to get Saddam out of power," he said.
When he described Hussein as "one of the most evil rulers" of the past 100 years, the crowd responded with heavy applause.
In his speech, Wolfowitz repeated the administration's standard caution that no decision has been made yet to go to war. But then he went on sometimes to speak as if war were inevitable. He said that the United States would show concern for the safety of Iraq's people on the day hostilities begin. He added that "when Saddam Hussein and his regime are nothing more than a horrible memory," the United States would help the Iraqi people establish a free government.
Wolfowitz urged the meeting's participants to consider joining the U.S. military as reservists to help U.S. forces if there is an invasion of Iraq. This would enable the military to capitalize "on your understanding of local languages and culture, as well as American culture and language."
The idea was well received by the crowd. "That's a good idea," said Amar Resul, 26, a native of the southern Iraqi city of Samawa who said he left there 10 years ago.
Alternatively, Wolfowitz said, Iraqi Americans could work as civilian employees of the Defense Department, or could join the "Free Iraqi Force" being trained by the U.S. Army at a base in Hungary to serve as scouts and interpreters for U.S. forces.
Sometimes resembling a rally, sometimes a planning session for postwar Iraq, the meeting also occasionally took on the tone of an encounter group. "In every heart here, in every person here, there is a scar," one questioner said. He then introduced a boy he said suffered brain damage after being beaten by Iraqi police in front of his mother in order to make her provide information. Wolfowitz stepped off the stage to take the boy's hand.
But most of the day's session focused on U.S. intentions and resolve for a postwar Iraq. Members of the audience repeatedly expressed concern that the United States, looking for a quick exit, would settle for having the country ruled by an Iraqi general, and also would leave in place much of the structure of the ruling Baath party. Wolfowitz repeatedly sought to dispel those worries.
But moderator Maha Hussain, an Iraqi American doctor who is president of the Iraqi Forum for Democracy, pointedly asked why such reassurances should be trusted, "considering the history of the United States government" in not supporting the 1991 uprisings, among other things.
Wolfowitz seemed momentarily nonplused by the question, but then responded by noting that the U.S. government repeatedly came to the aid of embattled Muslims in recent years, first in Somalia, Bosnia and Kosovo, then in Afghanistan, and probably soon, he said, in Iraq.
"I know there's a lot of history," he added. "This is a time not to look to the past but to the future."
Another member of the audience handed Wolfowitz a photograph of six members of his family who he said were killed during the 1991 uprisings. "We don't want 1991 to be repeated," he told the deputy defense secretary.
The meeting occasionally seemed on the verge of spinning out of control, with impatient members of the audience shouting out questions or the slogan, "Saddam must go." At one point, Wolfowitz reminded the vocal crowd: "We need to work together. We're on the same team. We have the same goal."