- The Washington Times - Wednesday, September 3, 2003

BABYLON, Iraq — The United States, eager to share security duties in Iraq, handed military control over a large swath of the country to a Polish commander yesterday during a ceremony in the ruins of an amphitheater built by Alexander the Great.

In Najaf, the brother of slain Ayatollah Muhammad Baqir al-Hakim said Shi’ite Muslims would not take up arms against the U.S.-led occupation force, but suggested his Badr Brigade had been rearmed — in defiance of American orders — to “defend ourselves.”

Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a member of the U.S.-picked Governing Council, also said it is still not known who was behind the car-bombing that killed the ayatollah and between 85 and 125 others at the close of Friday prayers in Najaf.

Mr. al-Hakim, who succeeded his brother as chief of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, blamed the attack “on enemies of Iraq,” saying they were followers of ousted dictator Saddam Hussein.

The CIA said yesterday that an audio recording purportedly of Saddam denying involvement in last week’s bombing is probably authentic, but the poor quality of the tape prevented certainty.

Police have said some Iraqis and foreigners with admitted ties to the al Qaeda terror network have been arrested in connection with the blast.

Asked if the Badr Brigade, the armed wing of the Supreme Council, was back in operation, Mr. al-Hakim said, “The Badr Brigade is more and more organized and will defend Iraqi interests and will share in the rebuilding of Iraq.

“If the allied forces are unable to take actions against such crimes, we will defend ourselves,” Mr. al-Hakim said. U.S. troops ordered the brigade disarmed and disbanded early in the occupation.

Military control was passed to the Poles in a 31,000-square-mile belt of Iraq south of Baghdad. Their zone includes the towns of Najaf, Karbala and Hillah and a region extending to the Iranian border.

But Najaf, the holiest Shi’ite city in Iraq, was not turned over. Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of coalition forces in Iraq, said Marines would be needed there for at least two more weeks. He said the Americans would review the situation in midmonth, and hoped then to hand the city over to a Spanish brigade from the international force.

“It’s absolutely clear to a military commander that the most vulnerable period is when he is in a period of transition,” Gen. Sanchez told reporters. “We will reassess the situation in about two weeks.”

The Poles are leading the 9,500-strong international force that includes troops from 21 countries. In addition to U.S. and British forces, there already were small forces from seven other nations.

“It’s indeed a historic moment. It’s a moment where the international community has stepped up and turned a nine-nation coalition into a 30-nation coalition, which sends an unmistakable message,” Gen. Sanchez told dozens of troops at the ceremony in the amphitheater near the ancient city of Babylon.

Seventeen countries are providing soldiers to the international force for the south-central part of the country. Four other countries are providing logistical support.

Maj. Gen. Andrzej Tyszkiewicz, commander of the international force, said his soldiers will not be occupiers.

“Even though we have different uniforms and different flags, we are unified by one purpose. That purpose is to help the Iraqi people wipe out the traces of Saddam Hussein’s monstrous dictatorship and build a new basis of peaceful existence,” he said.

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