- The Washington Times - Saturday, April 19, 2003

From combined dispatches

BAGHDAD Thousands of demonstrators poured onto the streets of Baghdad after Friday prayers, chanting anti-American slogans and calling for an Islamic state to replace Saddam Hussein's toppled government.

Elsewhere in Baghdad, anti-Saddam leader Ahmed Chalabi told reporters in his first public appearance in Baghdad that he is not a candidate to become Iraq's new leader and that he expects an Iraqi interim authority to take over most government functions from the U.S. military in "a matter of weeks, rather than months."

The protesters called for unity among Iraq's majority Shi'ite Muslims, powerful Sunnis and Kurds, shouting, "No to America, no to Saddam."

Some carried banners in Arabic and English. "Leave our country. We want peace," read one.

The demonstration followed the first full Friday prayers since the fall of Saddam, where hundreds of thousands of worshippers throughout Iraq heard ringing criticism of U.S. occupation forces and rejection of U.S.-style democracy.

The sermons delivered by imams on the Muslim holy day provided the first crystallization of reaction among the Muslim clergy to the three-week war and occupation by U.S.-led forces.

Mr. Chalabi said he envisions "first reconstruction of basic services" under the control of retired American Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, selected by the Pentagon to run a military administration. He did not indicate a preference for a successor to the old regime.

Once that is done, Mr. Chalabi said the U.S. military will search for weapons of mass destruction, dismantle the old regime's "apparatus of terror" and disarm its army.

Mr. Chalabi and followers of his Iraqi National Congress have established makeshift headquarters in two social clubs in the city's affluent Mansur district. Armored U.S. vehicles and elements of Mr. Chalabi's militia, called the Free Iraqi Forces, provide security to the buildings.

In another part of the city, U.S. Marines with machine guns guarded an estimated $1 billion in gold in the city's banking district, securing nine massive vaults that withstood rocket-propelled grenade hits by would-be thieves.

Foreign ministers from six countries bordering Iraq, along with Egypt and Bahrain, the current Arab League chairman, met in the Saudi Arabian capital of Riyadh for talks on Iraq's future.

"We call on the occupying authority, which we hope will withdraw from Iraq as soon as possible, to quickly put in place an interim government with a view to putting in place a constitutional government," Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al-Faisal said yesterday in an opening address.

Spirits were high in Baghdad's poor Shi'ite Muslim suburb of Sadr City, formerly Saddam City, where about 50,000 locals jammed the Al-Hikma mosque and surrounding streets patrolled by Kalashnikov-wielding guards.

Sheik Mohammed Fartusi did not name the United States in his sermon.

But he said the Shi'ites, who constitute a majority in the northern suburb, would not accept a brand of democracy "that allows Iraqis to say what they want, but gives them no say in their destiny."

"This form of government would be worse than that of Saddam Hussein," he told the first Friday prayers to be held at the mosque since 1999 riots sparked by the assassination of the imam, Mohammed Sadeq Sadr.

Sheik Fartusi urged the faithful to follow the dictates of the Shi'ite Hawza, the council of senior clergymen, and spelled out a code of conduct including a ban on music, mandatory veils for women and the primacy of Islamic law over tribal law.

The cleric at one of Shi'ite Islam's holiest shrines in the city of Karbala southwest of Baghdad was more explicit in denouncing the presence of U.S. troops he called "unbelievers."

"We reject this foreign occupation, which is a new imperialism. We don't want it anymore," Sheik Kaazem al-Abahadi al-Nasari said at the mausoleum of Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad.

"We don't need the Americans. They're here to control our oil. They're unbelievers, but as for us, we have the power of faith," he told thousands of worshippers.

No major incidents were reported in the Friday prayers and demonstrations, which were held as Iraqis were still trying to find their footing under U.S. occupation in a chaotic postwar environment.

If they initially welcomed the U.S. troops who took over Baghdad nine days ago, Iraqis have been increasingly critical of the failure to quickly restore order and basic services, such as water and electricity.

Political jockeying is also intensifying with scores of parties elbowing for position, self-proclaimed governors and mayors floating through the landscape and U.S. military officials keeping a tight lid on events.

Organizers of yesterday's demonstration in Baghdad called themselves the Iraqi National United Movement and said they represented both Shi'ites and Sunnis.

The protests and demonstrations served notice of the hostility that the United States is likely to face from sectors of the influential Muslim clergy.

In Qatar, Pentagon spokesman Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks said that, now that Saddam is gone, Iraqis have the right to demonstrate.

"We want the governance of Iraq to be handed over to, passed over to the Iraqi people as quickly as we can," Gen. Brooks said.

But adding to the unease is a yawning political vacuum in Baghdad.

Gen. Garner has yet to make his presence felt in Baghdad, and there is no clear U.S. or Iraqi spokesman there.

The United States is now turning its focus to kick-starting Iraq's shattered economy, hit by three wars in 23 years.

U.S. officials told Reuters news agency in Kuwait that the United Nations must lift sanctions within weeks to help the country recover, but Washington faces opposition to ending the sanctions from France and Russia. At issue is who controls Iraq's oil.

The officials, briefing Reuters on the condition of anonymity, said the United States would open Iraq's borders to tariff-free trade for 90 days once the embargo is lifted.

They also forecast that Iraq could not rely on using its oil revenues for about a year until it sorts out its debt, which is estimated at more than $100 billion.

A semblance of order appeared to be returning to the northern city of Mosul, which has been rocked by a week of looting and violence since U.S. troops and Kurdish allies took the city unopposed.

"The situation now seems to be more stable," said Mahar Aziz, a grocer. "I saw some small-scale looting [Thursday], but the Americans are patrolling the streets constantly."

West of Baghdad, Australian Lt. Col. Mark Elliott said special forces found 51 MiG warplanes, as well as armored vehicles, anti-aircraft weapons systems and an anti-aircraft missile system at a large airfield.

The site also included bunkers capable of withstanding nuclear, chemical or biological attack, he said, as well as instruction manuals and other materials relating to weapons of mass destruction.

In another development, the Pentagon reported the release of 887 Iraqi prisoners taken earlier in the war.

They were determined to be noncombatants, said Maj. Ted Wadsworth, a Pentagon spokesman.

American and British forces continue to hold 6,850 prisoners, he said.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, Kurdish officials examined a nearby mass grave consisting of more than 2,000 mounds and about a dozen unmarked concrete tombs spread over an area of about five acres.

Kamal Kerkuki, an official with the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said he believes the earth bears victims of Saddam's anti-Kurdish campaigns in 1988 and 1989.

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