US Hails Guerrilla Arrest EU Seeks UN Role in Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–The United States on Wednesday held up the capture of a veteran Palestinian guerrilla chief in Iraq as proof of a link between Saddam Hussein and terrorism–and stepped up the hunt for the ousted president and his aides.

But as US Marines raided Baghdad homes–including that of a scientist wanted for her work on banned weapons programmes–European Union leaders meeting in Greece were set to demand a major role for the United Nations in rebuilding Iraq.

The fate or whereabouts of Saddam remained unknown.

The White House said President George W. Bush was pleased Abu Abbas–mastermind of the 1985 hijacking of the Italian cruise ship Achille Lauro in the eastern Mediterranean–would be brought to justice following his capture in Baghdad on Monday.

"We will track down terrorists–find them where ever they are and bring them to justice,” spokesman Scott McClellan told reporters "They can run but they can’t hide.”

Abbas–now in his mid-50s–has long renounced violence and Israel has allowed him to travel to Gaza–declaring him immune from prosecution over the hijacking under a Middle East deal. Washington dropped a warrant for his arrest several years ago.

The Palestinian Authority demanded his release–but Italy said it would seek his extradition.

US forces–meanwhile–launched spot raids around Baghdad in search of people linked to Saddam–who has vanished along with his two sons and most of his associates. Only two out of 55 people on a US "most wanted” list have so far been caught.

On the political front–Ahmad Chalabi–leader of the Iraqi National Congress and a favorite of the Pentagon–became the first major exile politician to reach Baghdad since the overthrow of Saddam–an aide said.

Abdelaziz Hakim–a top Iraqi Shi’ite opposition leader and deputy head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI)–arrived in the southern Iraqi city of Kut–ending 23 years in exile in Iran–his son said.

He was apparently the first Iranian-backed Shi’ite leader to return to Iraq since Saddam fell.

Despite more incidents of violence and looting and a desperate shortage of electricity–water and medical care in the heavily bombed capital–US officials announced first steps to put Iraq’s civil service back to work.

The officials said the US administration that will rule the country for the time being would start giving Iraqi civil servants a $20 per head emergency payment within days.

They said the dollar paymen’s would be critical to getting the economy moving again and Iraqis would have to cope with a hotch-potch of currencies including the dollar–other Western currencies and the Saddam-era dinar for some time.

"Our number one goal is to try to let economic activity begin to happen as quickly as possible,” said one US official who briefing reporters.

The US military also said it hoped to get Iraqi oilfields pumping at two thirds of pre-war levels within eight weeks.

But analysts say a likely delay in introducing a new currency raises the risk of inflation–dollarizing the economy or even driving some Iraqis into northern Kurdish-controlled areas where a more stable pre-Saddam Hussein dinar is used.

EU leaders meeting in Athens said they wanted to work together and with the United States to rebuild Iraq.

They worked on a statement on how the UN and EU could work in Iraq in a way acceptable to Washington–which has made clear it will not let the UN take the leading role in rebuilding the country after the war fought by US and British forces.

SHOOTING BY US TROOPS

Although the war ended in less that a month–sporadic violence continues and many problems remain.

The US military said US troops killed at least seven Iraqis on Tuesday during a protest against their presence. It said the demonstrators fired first. Three more people were killed in a bank robbery on Wednesday–a local official said.

Washington has not found any of the weapons of mass destruction–the main justification for the military campaign.

The United States–however–latched on to the capture of Abu Abbas–as a justification for the war.

The Achille Lauro hijackers killed a disabled elderly American Jewish passenger–Leon Klinghoffer–shooting him and pushing his wheelchair overboard.

US Central Command said Abbas’s capture "removes a portion of the terror network supported by Iraq and represents yet another victory in the global war on terrorism.”

The Palestinian Authority demanded his release–saying his detention breached a 1995 Middle East deal offering Palestinian officials immunity. US officials said Abbas was not covered by that deal.

US officials continued to accuse Syria of hiding top-ranking Iraqis. Syria has angrily denied those allegations and further US charges that it possesses chemical weapons.

Syrian Foreign Minister Farouq al-Shara on Wednesday revived a proposal for making the entire Middle East free of weapons of mass destruction–but it appeared to have little short-term chance of acceptance as it primarily targets Israel.

Syria also said on Wednesday it would not close the Damascus offices of radical Palestinian groups–one of Washington’s long-standing deman’s.

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