Wednesday April 16, 02:20 AM
Search for new Iraqi leadership begins, 12 killed in Mosul firefight
The search for a new Iraqi leadership began with US officials meeting opposition leaders, but tensions were still running high with 12 people killed in a firefight involving US troops.
A rally of around 20,000 mostly Shiite Muslims, unthinkable a week ago under Saddam Hussein's Sunni regime, protested at the meeting held near Nasiriyah in southern Iraq, underscoring the scope of the changes sweeping Iraq and the pitfalls facing Washington's effort to re-make the country.
US officials expressed hope the main stage of hostilities was over with the fall of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit on Monday, but were not yet ready to declare victory, while Washington also put neighbouring Syria in its sights.
"Our victory in Iraq is certain, but not yet complete," said US President George W. Bush on day 27 of the war.
Iraq's leading Shiite group boycotted the meeting and a key opposition leader sent only a representative amid distrust over the role of the United States and internal division over how to craft a representative government.
The special White House envoy to the Iraqi opposition, Zalmay Khalilzad, told the meeting in the biblical city of Ur that the United States had "no intention of ruling Iraq" after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.
"We want you to establish your own democratic system based on Iraqi traditions and values," he told the 80 delegates on hand, who included local and exiled opposition leaders as well as religious officials.
The opposition groups adopted a statement declaring that a future Iraqi government must be democratic and based on the rule of law, and that no leader should be imposed from outside.
It said Saddam's Baath party must be dissolved and called for a democratic federal system, but said a future government should be chosen on the basis of countrywide consultation and not based on communal identity.
The leaders agreed to meet again in 10 days "to discuss procedures for developing an Iraqi interim authority."
While the United States has made clear it intends retired US general Jay Garner to lead an interim administration, representatives of Iraq's majority Shiite community have said they won't accept anyone imposed from outside.
"We refuse to put ourselves under the thumb of the Americans or any other country, because that is not in the Iraqis' interests," said Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, the deputy head of the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), the main Shiite faction which boycotted the US-brokered meeting.
"Our country must be governed by its people, by its best children," said Mohammad Reda Ali Sistani, speaking for his father, the country's leading Shiite Muslim dignitary, Ayatollah Ali Sistani.
Many Iraqis fear US plans for the future of Iraq and popular anger has been mounting over the widespread anarchy and chaos since Saddam was toppled last Wednesday.
That anger was visible in Nasiriyah as the crowd marched through the street chanting "Yes to freedom... Yes to Islam... No to America, No to Saddam."
Such anger was also visible in the northern city of Mosul, when a firefight broke out as the newly-appointed governor was making a speech which listeners deemed was too pro-US, witnesses said.
A doctor at the city hospital, Ayad al-Ramadhani, said 12 people had been killed and 60 wounded in the shooting.
US troops guarding the governor said they opened fire after gunmen on an opposite roof began shooting.
"We didn't fire at the crowd, but at the top of the building," said a US military spokesman.
At US Central Command in Qatar, Navy Commander Charles Owens said: "We're investigating, all we can say now is that we did not shoot into a crowd."
But witnesses said US troops fired into the crowd after it became increasingly hostile towards the new governor, Mashaan al-Juburi.
"They (the soldiers) climbed on top of the building and first fired at a building near the crowd, with the glass falling on the civilians. People started to throw stones, then the Americans fired at them," said Ayad Hassun.
"Dozens of people fell," he said, his own shirt stained with blood.
An AFP journalist saw ambulances ferrying wounded people to hospital, while a US aircraft flew over the city at low altitude.
In another step bringing more of Iraq under US control, the commander of a 16,000-strong Iraqi military unit surrendered an area in western Iraq extending to the Syrian border.
"I am ready to help. Thank you for liberating Iraq and making it stable," Iraqi General Mohammed Jarawi said after signing the surrender.
A scaledown of the 300,000-strong US force deployed in the region was also underway.
Two US aircraft carriers -- the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation -- were due to head home from the Gulf as early as this week. More than 1,000 US soldiers were also due to start leaving Turkey Tuesday, local officials said.
Syria remained in the sights of US officials, who accuse the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of state terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction and of harbouring fugitive Iraqi officials.
The Syrian government hit back, condemning "the threatening language and the baseless accusations levelled by certain American officials against Syria with the aim of striking a blow at its firm position, influence its decisions and it commitment to international legitimacy."
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations also accusing Washington of double standards over its support for Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East.
"We don't have weapons of mass destruction," Rostom al-Zoubi said. "It is Israel, which has a big arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."
Life in Baghdad remained far from normal six days after US troops entered. Most shops remained closed and many parts of the city still lacked water or electricity.
US forces tried for the first time to prevent the media from covering a third day of anti-US protests outside the hotel housing a US operations base in central Baghdad.
As the Iraqi protest grew more vocal, a marine corporal held an impromptu briefing for a few reporters on the progress made in restoring security and essential services.
Corporal John Hoellwarth said US forces planned to boost joint police patrols, bring more hospitals back into service and have power restored to parts of Baghdad within 72 hours.
He said 50 electrical engineers were brought in to assess the damage to the capital's power system which went down April 4 amid massive US bombings, and repairs began Monday.
The International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) said water should be restored to much of eastern Baghdad on Wednesday after a pumping station was repaired.
With Baghdad's hospital system in a state of virtual collapse after widespread pillage, Hoellwarth said 14 of the city's 33 facilities were secure and operational. He could not say when the others would reopen.
Hoellworth said joint Iraqi-US police patrols began Monday, with between 700 and 1,000 Iraqi policemen reporting for duty.
"They (patrols) are progressing steadily and we are also working to work out neighborhood watch programs," Hoellwarth said.