Thousands of Iraqis Demand U.S. Withdrawal
By Hassan Hafidh
BAGHDAD (Reuters - 18 April) - Tens of thousands of Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad on Friday to demand the withdrawal of U.S. forces from Iraq, as the American military announced the arrest of another wanted associate of Saddam Hussein.
The demonstrators yelled anti-American slogans after Friday prayers and called for an Islamic state to replace Saddam's toppled government.
The protests on the Muslim holy day came as regional states gathered in Saudi Arabia to weigh a response to the Iraq war.
U.S. Central Command in Qatar announced that Iraqi Kurds had captured and handed over Samir Abul Aziz al-Najim, a senior official of Saddam's Baath Party. He was the fourth person to be detained from a U.S. list of most-wanted Iraqis.
In the first Friday prayers since U.S. tanks drove to the heart of the Iraqi capital last week, a Muslim preacher said the United States had invaded to defend Israel and denied Iraq possessed weapons of mass destruction, one of Washington's key justifications for the war.
No prayers were held last Friday after the capital was captured.
Followers of the preacher, Ahmed al-Kubaisi, poured out of the mosque, carrying Korans and waving banners that read "No to America. No to Secular State. Yes to Islamic State."
"Leave our country, we want peace," one banner read.
"This is not the America we know. The America we know respects international law, respects the right of people," Kubaisi said, accusing the United States of launching the war in support of Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon.
Kubaisi said Iraqis had been betrayed by Saddam, who has disappeared along with most of his Baathist government. "Saddam was the one who betrayed his people and ignored them and escaped," he said.
The demonstration served notice of the hostility that the United States, which has appointed a retired American general to lead an interim administration in Iraq, is likely to face from sectors of the influential Muslim clergy.
NEIGHBORS WANT ROLE
With shock waves from the stunning U.S. victory still reverberating around the region, eight states met in Riyadh to discuss ties with the future authorities in Baghdad and offer verbal support for Syria, which Washington has repeatedly accused of harboring members of Saddam's government.
The meeting, first such forum on postwar Iraq, was attended by foreign ministers from Turkey, Iran, Syria, Jordan, Kuwait, Egypt and Bahrain as well as host Saudi Arabia. None of these countries was on good terms with Iraq during Saddam's rule, but with a political vacuum opening at the heart of the volatile region, all want a say in what comes next.
"We'll discuss ways and means to help the Iraqi people decide their own future and choose their own government without foreign intervention," said Egyptian Foreign Minister Ahmed Maher. "This is Iraq, not the United States, so it is normal that the government of Iraq should be Iraqi."
Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara said he thought the meeting would call for withdrawal of foreign forces from Iraq. "Occupation is not the right response to stability in Iraq," he said in Cairo on Thursday.
Syria has been under strong American pressure over the last week, but a U.S. official said on Thursday there were signs Damascus might consider expelling any Iraqi leaders sheltering there.
The United States has now toned down its rhetoric. Secretary of State Colin Powell said he was considering a trip to Damascus as part of a wider Middle East visit.
But a diplomatic storm could be gathering over Wednesday's call by President Bush for the United Nations to lift crippling economic sanctions against Baghdad, first imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait.
Ironically, diplomats from some countries that had long pressed for sanctions to be eased and opposed the invasion of Iraq, are now saying the restrictions should stay in place until the U.N. certifies that Iraq is free of banned weapons.
"For the Security Council to take this decision, we need to be certain whether Iraq has weapons of mass destruction or not," said Russian Foreign Minister Igor Ivanov.
Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix, who pulled his team out of Iraq before the war, said the United States needed expert help to pursue the investigations.
Washington has made clear it prefers to do the job itself and a Pentagon official said it had enlisted about 10 former U.N. weapons inspectors to help the search.
"NO TREASURE HUNT"
Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said help from Iraqi insiders would be needed.
"It is not like a treasure hunt where you just run around looking everywhere, hoping you find something," he said in Washington. "I think what will happen is we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it."
Some of the hostility of Iraqis against the U.S. invasion has focused on the collapse of public services. The commander of the U.S. Marines in Iraq, Major General James Mattis, said that after a blackout lasting more than a week, some electricity would be restored to Baghdad on Friday.
"Getting the water, the power, the trash (collection) back up, that's absolutely critical," he told Reuters.
In a sign that combat operations are over in Baghdad, U.S. Marines, the rapid strike force who helped seize the city, said they would begin handing control of their sector to the U.S. Army on Saturday.
The capital is currently divided between Marines, who control the part east of the river Tigris, and Army units occupying the western half, complicating the job of U.S. planners trying to end chaos and restore services to the population.