US Begins Long Hard Task of Rebuilding Iraq

BAGHDAD (Reuters)–The United States pledged on Monday to build a new Iraq from the ashes of war but faced mounting challenges as ethnic tension simmered in the north and Shi’ite Muslims staged an anti-American protest in the capital.

Retired US general Jay Garner–heading the agency charged with rebuilding Iraq after the devastating war to oust Saddam Hussein–flew in to Baghdad and vowed to work flat-out to repair the damage.

As he toured a hospital and a power plant–about 2,000 Shi’ite Muslims staged an anti-American protest–accusing US troops of having arrested one of their leaders–Muhammad al-Fartusi. US military officials said they were not aware of the arrest but were checking further.

"No–no to colonialism,” the demonstrators chanted in the protest outside the Palestine Hotel where some US military units are based. In the northern city of Kirkuk–Arab families said they had been ordered to leave their homes as armed Kurds laid claim to property and sought revenge for atrocities under Saddam Hussein.

Dozens of Arab men and women crowded outside the main administrative building in the center of the oil-rich northern city of 700,000 to complain about mistreatment including looting and threats by Kurds.

In Moscow–a senior Foreign Ministry official said Russia– a veto-wielding permanent member of the Security Council– would insist on UN arms inspectors declaring Iraq free of weapons of mass destruction before sanctions against it could be lifted.

Washington is pushing for quick scrapping of the 12-year-old sanctions but Russia–France and several other European and Middle Eastern countries fear that once they are gone the United Nations will have no leverage over Iraq’s future.

The United States failed to win Security Council approval for the war–and has made clear that it believes its victory gives it the right to dominate the shaping of the new Iraq.

RANSACKED HOSPITAL

Garner–head of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance (ORHA)–began his four-day tour with a visit to Baghdad’s Yarmuk hospital–which has been ransacked by looters.

Zayed Abdul Karim–the head of the hospital–led Garner through dark–dusty corridors littered with broken glass. The hospital has had no electricity for two weeks since Baghdad’s power was cut during the US air bombardment.

The lights came back on in parts of eastern Baghdad on Sunday night–hours before Garner’s arrival.

Garner said his priority was to restore basic services such as water and electricity "as soon as we can.”

"What we need to do from this day forward is to give birth to a new system in Iraq. It begins with us working together–but it is hard work and it takes a long time. We will help you as long as you want us to,” he said.

Some doctors at the hospital were suspicious of US intentions. "I want to cry–because these are only words,” a doctor who gave her name as Iman’said after listening to Garner.

"Saddam Hussein was an unjust ruler–but maybe one day we could have got rid of him–and not had these foreigners come in to our country.”

Highlighting the confusing power vacuum that has prevailed since Saddam was toppled–a US official said Washington did not recognize Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi–a former exile who has declared himself governor of Baghdad.

Barbara Bodine–coordinator for central Iraq in Garner’s civil administration–also ruled out Zubaidi or his aides going to a meeting of the Organization of Petroleum Exporting Countries in Vienna this week to represent the country.

Russia’s ITAR-TASS news agency quoted a Foreign Ministry official as saying chief weapons inspectors Hans Blix and Mohamed ElBaradei–who headed UN teams in Iraq before the war–should be allowed to return and quickly finish their work.

"This could be done within a couple of weeks as it is obvious that there are no such weapons there,” he said.

NO WEAPONS FOUND

US President George W. Bush launched the invasion of Iraq on March 20–saying he wanted to oust Saddam and rid the country of chemical and biological weapons–but so far no confirmed trace has been found of such arms.

However the New York Times reported on Monday that an Iraqi scientist had told a US military team that Iraq destroyed chemical weapons and biological warfare equipment only days before the war began.

The newspaper quoted members of the US team as saying the unidentified scientist led them to a supply of materials used in the production of illegal weapons–which he said he had buried.

The fate of Saddam himself and his sons Uday and Qusay remained a mystery 12 days after US-led forces pushed into the center of Baghdad–ending his 24 years of iron rule.

Ahmad Chalabi–founder of the Iraqi National Congress and a favorite of the Pentagon–told BBC Radio his information indicated Saddam was still in Iraq–contrary to speculation that he might have fled to Syria.

He said the United Nations should have only a limited role in getting Iraq back on its feet. "The United Nations cannot play a significant role in Iraq because it has little credibility in Iraq.”

The commander of a US tank unit that fired on a Baghdad hotel–killing two cameramen during the battle for the Iraqi capital on April 8–said in an interview with a French magazine that he had not been aware the building was packed with foreign journalists.

Captain Philip Wolford told Le Nouvel Observateur he had authorized the attack on the Palestine Hotel after his men’spotted what appeared to be someone using binoculars on the roof. "I feel bad–my men feel bad,” he said.

Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Jose Couso–a cameraman for Spanish television channel Tele 5–died after a tank shell hit the 15th floor of the hotel. Three other members of the Reuters team were wounded.

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