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Not So Fast On Iraqi Self-Rule

The new top U.S. official in Iraq met for the first time Friday with the seven political leaders likely to form the core of a new government and said he found common ground on the way forward.

L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. civilian administrator, said they agreed on three priorities: restoring security, building democracy and rooting out the remnants of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party. "It was a frank, open exchange - a very friendly and long discussion," he said.

But The New York Times is reporting in its Saturday editions that the United States and Britain have indefinitely put off their plan to allow Iraqi opposition forces to form a national assembly and an interim government by the end of the month. The Times calls the decision "an abrupt reversal."

Instead, says the Times, top American and British diplomats leading reconstruction efforts in Iraq told exile leaders during the meeting that allied officials would remain in charge of Iraq for an indefinite period.

Bremer, who was accompanied by John Sawers, a British diplomat representing Prime Minister Tony Blair, told the Iraqi political figures at the meeting that the allies preferred to revert to the concept of creating an "interim authority" — not a provisional government — so that Iraqis could assist them by creating a constitution for Iraq, revamping the educational system and devising a plan for future democratic elections, the Times reports.

One Iraqi who attended the meeting is cited by the Times as saying Iraqi opposition leaders expressed strong disappointment over the reversal.

Yet Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party, told The Associated Press that the views of U.S. and Iraqi leaders at the session were "very close to each other, and in some cases they are identical."

In other developments:

  • A former top official of Saddam Hussein's Republican Guard, No. 10 on the coalition's most-wanted list, surrendered to coalition forces in Baghdad on Saturday, the U.S. military said. Gen. Kamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti who is also a cousin of the deposed leader gave himself up Saturday morning, U.S. Central Command said in a statement issued from MacDill Air Force Base, Florida. Mustafa spent almost his entire career in the Republican Guard. His brother is married to Saddam's youngest daughter, Hala.
  • A mass grave of 600 Kuwaiti prisoners missing since the first Gulf War may have been found in Iraq. The Iraqi National Congress, an Iraqi group that opposed Saddam Hussein, says it believes it located the grave at an air base in a town northwest of Baghdad.
  • The Washington Post reports in its Saturday editions that the U.S. executive selected by the Pentagon to advise Iraq's Ministry of Oil is suggesting that the country might best be served by exporting as much oil as it can and disregarding OPEC quotas.
  • Senator Joseph Lieberman, a Democratic presidential contender, says the limited competition for reconstruction contracts in Iraq has left the process under "a cloud of suspicion." The senior Democrat on the Governmental Affairs Committee is urging Committee Chair Susan Collins to hold hearings on the bidding process.
  • The northern oil city of Kirkuk will become the latest community in Iraq to edge toward democracy next week when it installs a new municipal council, the U.S. military commander in the region said Saturday. Two other towns, the northern city of Mosul and the southern port town of Umm Qasr, are being governed under similar arrangements with the American and British militaries.
  • A team of U.S. investigators has recovered 951 artifacts stolen from the Iraq National Museum but tracking down the rest will take years, they say. Still, the officer in charge of the team, Marine Colonel Matthew Bogdanos says the original number of 170-thousand missing items is a gross exaggeration.
  • The International Olympic Committee is sending a delegation to Baghdad to help Iraqi athletes prepare for the 2004 Summer Olympics in Athens. The Iraqi committee had been headed by Saddam Hussein's elder son, Odai. The committee's Baghdad headquarters largely were destroyed in bombing raids early in the Iraq war.

    Sawers came out of the meeting with Bremer and the Iraqis saying, "What we are doing is addressing the most urgent issues first," Sawers said. "The most urgent issue is that of security, and along with that the question of ensuring that the Baath Party cannot return in any shape or form."

    Bremer said, "We've got to first get law and order back. We've got to get basic services back, we've got to deal with the de-Baathification of this country. Eventually a new constitution has to be written."

    Even though Baghdad police have begun returning to work - and the U.S. Army sent 2,000 military policemen and promised more - many of the 5 million residents of the capital are still afraid to venture out at night. Reports still stream in of kidnappings, rapes and carjackings.

    Bremer has tapped a former New York City police chief to help re-establish the police and prison services. Bernard Kerik led the New York Police Department through the Sept. 11 terrorist attacks.

    U.S. authorities have blamed security problems on the fact that Saddam emptied Iraq's prisons in the dying days of his regime, returning thousands of hardened criminals back to the streets. But Bremer says they're being rounded up, and reports several hundred arrests.

    Bremer signed an order Friday banning members of the Baath Party's top four echelons from public office, whether in government, universities, hospitals or other institutions.

    As many as 1.5 million of Iraq's 24 million people belonged to the party under Saddam - a requirement for many civil-service jobs. Between 15,000 and 30,000 of them will be affected by the order, U.S. officials say.

    Meanwhile, the United States pushed for a vote on a U.N. resolution to help rebuild the country. Russia, China and France have made it clear they want major changes in a U.S.-backed resolution to lift U.N. sanctions against Iraq.

    Security Council members finished a paragraph-by-paragraph review of the nine-page revised U.S. draft resolution late Friday. Many called for a stronger U.N. role in postwar Iraq and greater transparency by the occupying powers, the United States and Britain, diplomats said.

    In Deauville, France, Finance ministers from the world's richest nations and Russia accept that Iraq will be unable to begin paying off its debts at least until 2005, the U.S. treasury secretary said Saturday.

    John Snow said he also won backing from his counterparts in the Group of Eight to expand international efforts to survey the extent of Iraqi debts, estimated in the tens of billions of U.S. dollars.

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