- The Washington Times - Wednesday, April 16, 2003

U.S. Special Forces have captured Abu Abbas in Baghdad, while the focus in Iraq has shifted from the battlefield to the conference table as Iraqi exiles open discussions on the future of the country.

U.S. Central Command on Tuesday announced the capture of Abu Abbas, the mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Achille Lauro. He is reported to be in U.S. custody in or near Baghdad.

"This mission success highlights the U.S. and our coalition partners' commitment to defeating terrorism worldwide," Centcom said in a statement. "The capture of Abu Abbas in Iraq removes a portion of the terror network supported by Iraq and represents yet another victory in the global war on terrorism."

Abu Abbas was believed to be 61 or 62 years old. He was the secretary-general of the Palestine Liberation Front, an organization that was based in Tunisia prior to the 1985 attack on the Achille Lauro luxury cruise liner. The attack made headlines because Abbas' men shot and killed disabled American David Klinghoffer in his wheelchair, dumping his body into the sea.

The PLF was funded intermittently in the 1980s by Libya and Iraq. Last month when hostilities in Iraq began, the PLF issued a statement saying that one of its fighters was killed in the cruise missile strike on a military post outside of Baghdad, the first U.S. attack of Operation Iraqi Freedom.

Meanwhile, former Iraqi opposition groups came together to discuss the future of a free nation in the southern city of An Nasiriyah. The U.S. sponsored talks ended with an agreement to meet again in 10 days.

Iraqi participants released a 13-point statement calling for the next government to be democratic and to respect the diversity of all Iraqis.

At least two of the groups — the Iran-backed Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, or SCIRI, and the Islamic Daawa Group, one of the most powerful Iraq-based organizations — refused to join the meeting.

One Iraqi opponent who wanted to remain anonymous said the reasons were U.S. hegemony and insistence on holding it in a U.S. Army barracks at a time when President George W. Bush was saying that "Iraq has become free of dictatorship."

Leaders of other groups, such as Ahmed Chalabi of the Pentagon-championed Iraqi National Congress, sent delegates instead of attending themselves.

U.S. delegates told conferees clustered under a tent inside the makeshift U.S. air base that the United States would not become an occupying force. Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House envoy to Iraq, said Washington had "absolutely no interest in ruling Iraq."

In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said the boycott was a demonstration of democracy in Iraq and that in the end it will be up to Iraqis to decide their own future.

"People demonstrate in the United States and boycott political rallies and things," said Rumsfeld. "That is what free people do and it ought not to come as a surprise."

Meanwhile, six pro-Western Gulf Arab states Wednesday called on the United States to stop threatening Syria in the wake of the war in Iraq. The Gulf Cooperation Council also said that setting up a transitional government in U.S.-occupied Iraq an urgent priority. The organization includes Kuwait, Qatar and Saudi Arabia.

Speaking for the organization, Qatari Foreign Minister Sheikh Hamad bin Jassim al-Thani urged the United States to moderate its tone against Syria.

"We think the threat to Syria should stop," he said. "We reject any infringement of Syria's security."

He added that the council now considers "Iraq occupied" and hopes there "will be a civil administration of the Iraqi people as soon as possible."

In Beirut, Hezbollah Deputy Secretary-General Sheikh Naim Qassem said U.S. threats against Syria were part of "a Zionist-U.S. plan" to strengthen Israel in Middle East and blasted the Bush administration demand for dismantling the group as an "interference in Lebanon's affairs."

"Neither the U.S. nor any other country in the world have the right to interfere in Lebanon's internal affairs or its resistance," Qassem said. "We practice a legitimate right (of resistance)."

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell has insisted that the Bush administration has no intention of attacking any other countries in the Middle East. But he added that the U.S. was expecting to see change in Syria.

In a news conference with foreign journalists, Powell said, "We hope that Syria understands now that there is a new environment in the region with the end of the regime of Saddam Hussein, and that Syria will reconsider its policies of past years."

Syria has rejected charges leveled by high-ranking administration officials, including President Bush, in the last week that it may be sheltering Iraqi fugitives and developing chemical weapons.

At the Pentagon Tuesday, Rumsfeld said U.S. forces shut down a pipeline that sent an estimated 200,000 barrels of oil from Iraq to Syria daily. The oil trade is a violation of U.N. sanctions.

"Whether it's the only one and whether that has completely stopped the flow of oil between Iraq and Syria, I cannot tell you," the defense secretary said.

In other developments Wednesday:

— U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan will hold a series of meetings on Athens with British Prime Minister Tony Blair, German Chancellor Gerhard Schroeder and the foreign ministers of France, Germany, Russia, Spain and the United Kingdom to discuss the latest developments in Iraq.

— Iraqis are accusing U.S. troops of firing at demonstrators in the city of Mosul. The Itar-Tass news agency reported that U.S. soldiers opened fire at a crowd, who staged a protest against Mashan al-Jaburi, who has just been appointed to the post of governor of Mosul. The news agency said ten Iraqis were killed and about 100 wounded. The U.S. military denies its troops fired without being fired upon first.

— U.S. officials say the former Iraqi spy chief Farouk Hijazi is seeking asylum in Syria. Authorities say Hijazi was director of external operations for the Iraqi intelligence agency in the mid-1990s when the agency allegedly launched a failed attempt to assassinate President George H.W. Bush during a visit to Kuwait.

— Australian Prime Minister John Howard said it was unavoidable that once Saddam's regime collapsed there would be a period of civil disorder. Howard told Southern Cross radio the first obligation of the coalition forces was their own security, and they have now turned their attention to the safety of the population and getting humanitarian supplies into hospitals.


(Reported by Pamela Hess at the Pentagon, Nicholas M. Horrock and Ghassan al-Kadi in Baghdad; Richard Tomkins with the 5th Marines; William Reilly at the United Nations and Kathy Gambrell at the White House.)



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