Monday, September 15, 2003

BAGHDAD — Secretary of State Colin L. Powell, on his first trip to Iraq since the victorious U.S.-led war this spring, said he was “deeply impressed” by the political and economic progress he saw during a whirlwind visit with leading American and Iraqi officials.

While conceding that security problems remain in parts of the country, Mr. Powell said the news media and much of the international community have overlooked real achievements under the U.S.-dominated coalition authority, from the appointment of senior government ministers to the creation of PTAs in grade schools across the country.

“I’m deeply impressed by what I saw here, building a nation, building a society,” said Mr. Powell.

Briefing reporters beside L. Paul Bremer, head of the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Mr. Powell added, “I think a little more time, attention and energy should be given to the good stories out there.”

In addition to Mr. Bremer, Mr. Powell met with senior U.S. military leaders, the transitional Iraqi Governing Council, the Baghdad City Council, new Iraqi Foreign Minister Hoshyar Zebari, and Hussein al-Sadr, a senior cleric in Baghdad well connected in Iraq’s majority Shi’ite community.

But security was extremely tight for the Powell visit, and the secretary did not travel to some of the country’s more-troubled regions or meet with prominent critics of the American presence.

“I don’t know if I had the opportunity go around town and ask” whether ordinary Iraqis were happy with the situation, Mr. Powell joked at one point. But, he said, “I think I’ve been around long enough to understand the things I’m being told and see behind the things I’m told.”

As if to underscore the uncertainty in Iraq, the U.S. military announced that one American soldier was killed and three wounded yesterday by an “improvised explosive device” in Fallujah, just days after eight Iraqi policeman and a Jordanian security officer were killed by U.S. troops in an apparent case of mistaken identity.

Today, dozens of U.S. troops raided homes near Tikrit’s dangerous “RPG Alley,” arresting five men suspected of helping to bankroll attacks against U.S. troops in Saddam Hussein’s hometown, the Associated Press reported.

The predawn raid was carried out against three homes located next to a highway that has seen 20 attacks with rocket-propelled grenades, or RPGs against the U.S. military in the past two weeks.

As the raid took place, mortars were heard booming in the distance — a show of force by American troops.

An Army captain detailed to the central Baghdad convention center where Mr. Powell briefed reporters yesterday said the heavily guarded complex wasn’t immune to violence.

“Sometimes it’s like south-central [Los Angeles]. You hear a gun popping off in the distance every so often,” the captain said.

In an interview with CNN yesterday, Mr. Powell, a Vietnam veteran, rejected any parallel between that conflict and the situation in Iraq.

“Yes, it’s a little unstable in the central part of the country,” he said. “We are taking casualties, and we regret each and every one. But we knew it would be difficult, and we are encouraging more and more people to contribute to our work here.”

A sharp dispute in the U.N. Security Council over the political future of Iraq followed Mr. Powell to Baghdad, where he again rejected a French proposal for an expedited hand over of power to an Iraqi government, with the United States ceding to the United Nations the dominant role in the transition.

A senior State Department official said a six-month deadline, proposed Friday by French Foreign Minister Dominique de Villepin, was less of a sticking point than the French idea of turning control of the process over to the United Nations and a budding Iraqi authority when neither is ready to handle the responsibility.

“It’s not a date; it’s the process that matters,” the official said.

Mr. Powell, in his meeting with the 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, was more blunt about the U.S. determination to control the measured return to Iraqi sovereignty.

Referring to this spring’s U.N. debate between Washington and Paris over the Iraq war, Mr. Powell said, “We were right. They were wrong. And I am here.”

Mr. Zebari, the foreign minister and an ethnic Kurd, said after his meeting with Mr. Powell that he hoped to see a new constitution and a functioning Iraqi government by the end of 2004, adding that Iraq hopes “all the governments of the Security Council will support us.”

Mr. Powell again expressed confidence the diplomatic impasse in the Security Council can be broken because all the major powers share the same long-term goal of an independent, stable Iraq.

“Everybody would like to accelerate this,” he said. “We are not hanging on for the sake of hanging on.”

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