Thursday, June 10, 2004

Iraq’s new president, seeking to calm tensions between his nation’s Shi’ites and Kurds, pledged yesterday that promises of Kurdish autonomy in the country’s interim constitution will be honored.

“Iraq will be a free and democratic federal country. Federalism has been accepted by all Iraqis,” Ghazi Mashal Ajil al-Yawer said during his first visit to Washington since being named to the largely ceremonial post last week.

“The Kurdish demands are for federalism,” he said at a press conference. “Federalism brings two pieces of a country and glues them together. This is what our brethren, the Kurds, want and we have to respect that. We’re going to abide by” the interim constitution approved in March.

Kurdish leaders threatened this week to pull out of the new Iraqi government if their hopes for autonomy are thwarted. But Mr. al-Yawer insisted that reports of strife within the government were “baseless.”

Mr. al-Yawer, a 45-year-old engineer who attended Georgetown University in Washington, met President Bush yesterday in Sea Island, Ga., before coming to Washington to meet members of Congress. Last night, he held a private reception at American University for Iraqi leaders in the Washington community.

At his press conference, he said the top priority of his government would be to “re-establish security” for the Iraqi people. He said that would require multinational forces to remain in Iraq for an undetermined time.

“Without the multinational forces, there will be a vacuum of power and it will be a jungle for murderers and killers and armies of the darkness,” he said.

Mr. al-Yawer added that he wanted NATO forces in Iraq.

“Definitely we want multinational forces from countries which are effective. We do not want to have a variety of small number of forces which will look like a carnival,” he said.

“We want effective forces to be there. We want these forces to come from law-abiding societies where human rights are very valuable to the people.”

In Iraq, fighting flared in Najaf for the first time since a Shi’ite militia agreed to a truce with U.S.-led forces last week, and Turkey said seven Turks were being held hostage by guerrillas.

Five persons were killed in the Najaf fighting that involved Iraqi police and militiamen belonging to Shi’ite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr. Three policemen were among the dead.

Iraqi police returned to Najaf’s streets under the June 4 peace deal, which U.S. forces hoped would mark the end of Sheik al-Sadr’s uprising. At its peak, the revolt engulfed cities across the mainly Shi’ite south, and hundreds of people were killed.

In Washington, Mr. al-Yawer said Sheik al-Sadr’s followers had to be coaxed into participating in a new “live and let live” Iraqi society.

“Don’t forget, these are not really well-trained forces, but you cannot make them evaporate and go away,” he said. “All who do not believe in raising arms should be a part of the political process.”

Asked about the Abu Ghraib prison abuse scandal, Mr. al-Yawer said he deplored the “atrocious acts” that took place in the notorious prison, as well as the mutilation by Iraqis of American contractors in Fallujah.

“Definitely this does not reflect on the values and the principles of the United States of America,” he said. “These are wrongdoings by bad people.”

He said that Mr. Bush has assured him that those involved in the prison abuses would be punished. “He assured me again and again that this will be the case. … The most important [thing is] that we make sure this or something like that will never happen again.”

• This article is based in part in wire service reports.

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