WASHINGTON, Feb. 6 - The Bush administration sought Sunday to allay concerns that a Shiite religious state could emerge in Iraq as a result of last weekend's elections.
Speaking on television news programs on Sunday, Vice President Dick Cheney and Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that Iraq's most influential Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, opposed direct cleric involvement in daily governing, and that most Iraqis rejected an Iranian-style theocracy.
"We have a great deal of confidence in where they're headed," Mr. Cheney said on "Fox News Sunday." "I don't think, at this stage, that there's anything like justification for hand-wringing or concern on the part of Americans that somehow they're going to produce a result we won't like."
He added, "The Iraqis have watched the Iranians operate for years and create a religious theocracy that has been a dismal failure, from the standpoint of the rights of individuals."
In his interview, Mr. Cheney also elaborated, for the first time, on the meaning of President Bush's challenge to the Iranian people to rise up against their ruling clerics. In the State of the Union address, Mr. Bush said, "As you stand for your own liberty, America stands with you."
Pressed to say what, exactly, the United States would do, Mr. Cheney said he and Mr. Bush "wanted to encourage the efforts that we've seen previously in Iran to promote freedom and democracy."
The statement, he said, was intended "to encourage the reformers, if you will, inside Iran to work to build a true democracy, one that doesn't vest enormous power, as this one does, in the unelected mullahs, who, we believe, are a threat to peace and stability in the region."
Both Mr. Cheney and Mr. Rumsfeld addressed Iran's nuclear ambitions, with Mr. Rumsfeld saying in a CBS News interview that he thought Iran "could be some period of years off" from actually building a nuclear weapon. Both men said there was still time to use diplomacy to disarm Iran, though Mr. Cheney said that if the current talks broke down, the administration would seek sanctions at the United Nations Security Council.
It was Iraq, however, and the delicate question of who will emerge in control of the country, that dominated the comments of both men. As Shiite religious parties prepare to take power in the new national assembly, senior Shiite clerics are debating how much of the Islamic faith should be enshrined in Iraq's new constitution, which the assembly will write. A constitution based on Koranic law would sharply depart from the transitional law that the Americans enacted.
In one of four appearances on television news programs on Sunday, Mr. Rumsfeld echoed Mr. Cheney's cautionary words.
"The Shia in Iraq are Iraqis," Mr. Rumsfeld said on the NBC News program "Meet the Press." "They're not Iranians. And the idea that they're going to end up with a government like Iran, with a handful of mullahs controlling much of the country, I think, is unlikely."
But he warned that it would be "a terrible mistake" if the new assembly adopted a constitution that denied "half of their population, women, the opportunity to participate fully."
Administration officials acknowledged that they would have much less influence over a transitional Iraqi government selected by the newly elected assembly, but were relying in part on Ayatollah Sistani's stature to steer Iraq clear of a government led by clerics.
"If you're looking for guidance in terms of what the relationship is likely to be between the religious faith, Islam, and the secular side of the house, the government, you really need to look at the top cleric, Sistani," Mr. Cheney said. "He also has been very clear, from the very beginning, that he did not want to play a direct role and doesn't believe clerics should play a direct role in the day-to-day operations of government."