- The Washington Times - Tuesday, December 9, 2003

BAGHDAD (Agence France-Presse) — The U.S. Army played host to sheiks at the main American base in the southern city of Nasiriyah on Monday, seeking to defuse the threat of violence among powerful southern tribes.

The sheiks arrived for talks after land disputes from the Saddam Hussein era prompted concern about tribal violence. Former exiles say their lands had been confiscated during Saddam’s Sunni-dominated rule over the Shi’ite south, and landowners say they have been dispossessed by those who have returned.

But U.S. commanders stressed that they had no power to adjudicate the disputes — their aim was purely to defuse the threat of violence between the former exiles and those who had found a way to cohabit with the Saddam regime.

“Until a new government is formed, we can take no decisions about the ownership of land — our main priority is to prevent any conflicts arising in the meantime,” said Lt. Col. Jeff Bryant, a U.S. Army civil affairs officer.

The bloodshed continued amid U.S. warnings of intensified attacks in the months ahead and a report by Newsweek that terror network al Qaeda is homing in on Iraq as its center of operations.

The magazine reported Monday that three top envoys of al Qaeda leader Osama bin Laden had told associates of fugitive Taliban leader Mullah Mohammed Omar last month about the plan.

Bin Laden has ordered the shift of the main theater of operation because he and his top lieutenants see a great opportunity to kill Americans and their allies in Iraq and neighboring countries such as Turkey, Newsweek said.

Meanwhile, Indonesia, the world’s most populous Muslim nation, issued its toughest criticism to date of the U.S. presence in Iraq, accusing it of fanning terror and destabilizing the world.

Foreign Minister Hassan Wirayuda said at a regional security conference that weapons of mass destruction, which had been presented as the main reason for the war, still had not been found.

“If those weapons have not been found because they do not exist, then an entire country has been leveled to the ground for no good reason,” he said, adding that a rushed turnover of power to Iraqis could spark a civil war.

On Monday, hundreds of Iraqi refugees returned to the southern city of Basra after years of exile in Iran.

“The better the security conditions, the more refugee returns will be organized,” said Burak al-Hamedi, local head of the United Nations’ refugee agency in Basra, where British troops largely have escaped the violence that continues to dog the rest of Iraq.

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