- The Washington Times - Friday, April 25, 2003

BAGHDAD U.S. military officials yesterday said Tariq Aziz, the deputy prime minister in Saddam Hussein's deposed regime, had surrendered in Baghdad. He is the most widely known member of the regime yet captured.
America's top civilian official in Iraq, meanwhile, distanced the United States from returned exile leader Ahmed Chalabi while promising that Iraqi government ministries would begin to reopen next week.
Pentagon sources said last night that Mr. Aziz, for years the public face of Saddam's government, is in U.S. custody in Baghdad. No details were available of his surrender, which was announced at Central Command in Qatar.
Mr. Aziz, who was on the U.S. list of its 55 most-wanted Iraqi officials, was the eight of spades in the deck of cards issued to U.S. troops in the country.
President Bush, meanwhile, said yesterday for the first time that the search for weapons of mass destruction in Iraq may come up empty, suggesting that Saddam's chemical and biological arms may have been destroyed or moved out of Iraq in the face of the U.S.-led military assault.
"He tried to fool the United Nations and did for 12 years by hiding these weapons. And so it's going to take time to find them," Mr. Bush said during a visit to Lima, Ohio. "But we know he had them. And whether he destroyed them, moved them or hid them, we're going to find out the truth."
Jay Garner, the retired general who heads the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs, made clear at his first Baghdad news conference yesterday that Mr. Chalabi is not America's candidate to govern postwar Iraq.
"Mr. Chalabi is a fine man. He is not my candidate, nor the [U.S.-led military] coalition's," Mr. Garner said of the Iraqi exile who last week entered the capital with more than 100 members of his U.S. Army-trained militia, called the Free Iraqi Forces.
Despite the remarks, Mr. Garner and some of his staff had dinner with Mr. Chalabi at the latter's Baghdad complex last night, according to Iraqi National Congress spokeswoman Riva Levinson in Washington.
Mr. Garner also rejected attempts by Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, a member of Mr. Chalabi's Iraqi National Congress, to establish himself as the mayor of Baghdad.
"If the people of Baghdad have a problem with [Mr. al-Zubaidi], they have to tell us, and we'll ask him to leave and show him how," Mr. Garner said, adding that a process for handling such complaints would be implemented soon.
Lt. Col. Alan King, commander of an Army civil-affairs battalion, went further, telling the Associated Press that Mr. al-Zubaidi was no more running Baghdad than is Saddam.
Noting reports that Mr. al-Zubaidi has been issuing weapons and uniforms to followers, Col. King said, "Anyone in uniform working with al-Zubaidi will be arrested as a combatant. The only people in Baghdad allowed to wear a uniform … is who we authorize."
The New York Times reported yesterday that Mr. al-Zubaidi had been handed a proclamation issued by Lt. Gen David McKiernan, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, asserting the coalition's "absolute authority" in Iraq.
Mr. al-Zubaidi was asked to vacate his office at the Palestine Hotel and was told that he had no authority to appoint anyone to any position, the newspaper reported.
Other members of the Iraqi National Congress have described Mr. al-Zubaidi as an "unsavory" character who is acting without the approval of the exile umbrella group.
At his press conference, Mr. Garner said he was concerned by reports that Iran has been using its ties to Iraqi Shi'ite religious figures to promote anti-American demonstrations in southern Iraq. "We won't accept any out-of-region influence, out-of-country influence," he said.
He admitted to having been startled by the magnitude of the demonstrations in cities such as Kut and Karbala but said the gatherings appeared to be "organized."
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said that promises to let the Iraqis form their own government did not mean that the United States would tolerate an Iranian-style theocracy.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said in an interview with the Associated Press.
Iranian Minister Kamal Kharrazi said in Tehran that Iran has no intention of interfering in Iraqi politics.
Iraqi Shi'ites "are our religious brothers," he said. "We welcome true democracy and a government run by the people in our neighbor country, but we won't support one specific party."
Mr. Garner said the United States had already selected American "coordinators" to advise each of the ministries in a new Iraqi government but said Iraqis would be in charge.
"I think you'll begin to see the governmental process start next week, by the end of next week," he said. "It will have Iraqi faces on it. It will be governed by the Iraqis."
Mr. Garner said Iraqis would not be barred from participating in the new government simply because they had belonged to the ruling Ba'ath Party. But he said that "no one who was a crony of Saddam Hussein" would be accepted.
A meeting of 300 prospective political leaders is tentatively scheduled to take place in Baghdad on Monday, 13 days after an initial meeting of Iraqi political factions near the southern town of Nasariyah.
Mr. Garner asked for patience from those who pressed for timelines and other specifics on the reconstruction project.
Most Iraqis "have been in a dark room for 35 years," he said. "Two weeks ago, we opened the door and pushed them into the sunlight, and they can't see yet."
Before the press conference, Mr. Garner met with three dozen prominent Iraqi citizens, most of them professors, scientists and lawyers.
U.S. officials said the list of participants was not a foreshadowing of the new government, but simply an effort to draw ideas and concerns from Iraqis who have a stake in building a more democratic Iraq.
Mr. Garner this week moved his base of operations from Kuwait to Baghdad and will in time oversee a staff of more than 1,300 people.
Despite initial reluctance, the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Affairs will have its headquarters at the largest of Saddam's Baghdad palaces, a monstrous complex of offices whose main entrances are crowned with enormous busts of the dictator.
Rowan Scarborough and Sharon Behn in Washington contributed to this article, which is based in part on wire service reports.



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