Ecstatic Iraqi pilgrims denounce US “occupation”

KERBALA (Reuters)–Iraq’s Shi’ite majority–casting off 25 years of repression by Saddam Hussein–celebrated a major pilgrimage in a frenzy of religious fervor on Tuesday–but many demanded US troops get out of their country.

The anti-American tone of the Muslim pilgrimage in the holy city of Kerbala contrasted strongly with the warm reception that Kurds in northern Iraq gave to the US administrator charged with rebuilding the war-ravaged country.

Retired general Jay Garner praised his Kurdish hosts–who were among Saddam’s fiercest enemies–for having created what he called a model that the rest of Iraq could emulate in their self-governed region–protected for a decade by US air power.

Hammering their chests and whipping their own backs until they bled–tens of thousands of Shi’ite Muslims swarmed through Kerbala–110 km (70 miles) south of Baghdad–on a pilgrimage long suppressed by Saddam.

Shi’ite leaders say a million or more people may flock to Kerbala this week for the pilgrimage–Arbaiin–which honors Imam Hussein–a gran’son of Islam’s Prophet Mohammad–who was killed in the city in 680 AD.

About 60 percent of Iraq’s 26 million population is Shi’ite.

"Yes–yes to Islam–no to America–no to Israel–no to colonialism and no to occupation,” some pilgrims chanted–in an indication of stormy weather ahead for Garner’s mission.

US TROOPS KEEP THEIR DISTANCE

US Marines stationed some 50 km (30 miles) northeast of Kerbala said they planned to keep a low profile. "Our intention right now is to stay out of the way,” one of their officers–Major Michael Purcell–told Reuters.

In Baghdad–a Shi’ite anti-American demonstration turned into a celebration when followers of cleric Muhammad al-Fartusi hailed what they said was his release from US detention.

Fartusi’s cheering supporters paraded through the centre of the city. There was no immediate explanation for his detention on Monday–which US officials have yet to confirm.

"We are against colonization and occupation–we have finished with one oppressive regime and we don’t want another,” said one Fartusi follower–Ahmed Abdel-Zahra–27.

Garner–who helped the Kurds establish autonomy in northern Iraq 12 years ago after the previous Gulf war–held talks in the city of Dukan with Jalal Talabani–veteran leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan–and Massoud Barzani–head of the rival Kurdistan Democratic Party.

Both said they supported creating a federal Iraqi state as envisioned by US President George W. Bush.

Garner visited the university in the northeastern city of Sulaimaniya–where crowds of cheering students gave him flowers and showered him with petals. "We trust you in our future,” read one poster in the crowd.

Hiwa Abdullah–30–a Kurdish university professor teaching Arabic–said: "I am very happy he is here. At least with the Americans we will no longer be afraid of chemicals and genocide.”

Saddam used chemical weapons against the Kurds in 1988–killing about 5,000.

Garner flew in from Baghdad–where he began an assessment on Monday of the impact of the war–which caused thousands of casualties and left many communities without power–water and other essential services.

Tensions between Kurds and Arabs have flared in the northern city of Mosul–where thousands of US troops backed by armor deployed on Tuesday to keep a lid on heavily armed rival factions.

"The key here is to show force and get the word out that the Iraqi regime is finished. Some people don’t seem to have gotten that message yet,” said Lieutenant Colonel Steve Countouriotis.

The United States plans to use revenue from sales of Iraqi oil to pay for much of the reconstruction–but some fellow members of the UN Security Council are balking at scrapping sanctions against the country despite the change of guard in Baghdad.

UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said "serious discussions” were under way in the Security Council to get Iraqi oil exports flowing again. But Annan–speaking to reporters in Vienna–declined to speculate on a possible timetable for the lifting of the embargo.

Russia and France insist that resolutions calling for Iraq to be declared free of weapons of mass destruction must be honored–and chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix was due to address the Security Council on the issue later on Tuesday.

Russian Foreign Ministry spokesman Alexander Yakovenko stressed the point. "Only if we receive an official conclusion from the inspectors can the UN Security Council pass a resolution on canceling sanctions,” he said on Tuesday.

CHINA WANTS END TO SANCTIONS

But China appeared to be leaning toward the US position that sanctions should be lifted quickly. "We have … advocated the early lifting of sanctions–but the relevant questions should be appropriately resolved within the UN framework,” foreign ministry spokesman Liu Jianchao told a news conference in Beijing.

In Washington–White House spokesman Ari Fleischer poured cold water on the idea of sending UN inspectors back to Iraq.

"We are looking forward–not backward. Saddam Hussein’s regime is gone,” Fleischer told reporters.

Bush sought to justify his invasion of Iraq on March 20 by accusing Saddam of hiding chemical and biological weapons. No confirmed trace of such weapons has yet been found.

In an interview broadcast by the BBC on Tuesday–Blix questioned the data used by the United States and Britain to justify attacking Iraq. "I think it’s been one of the disturbing elemen’s that so much of the intelligence on which the capitals built their case seemed to have been shaky,” he said.

Gunfire erupted on Tuesday afternoon in central Baghdad and US soldiers were sent to investigate–Reuters correspondent Hassan Hafidh said.

US troops said the shooting had not come from them and suggested turf wars were to blame. "It sounded like AK-47s … Everybody is fighting for power in the city–wherever we’re not in control,” one soldier said.

At US military headquarters in Qatar–a senior commander said American forces in Iraq had agreed a cease-fire with the People’s Mujahideen–an armed group of Iranian dissidents which had been backed by Saddam.

US forces said on Monday they had captured a leading Iraqi military commander–Mohammed Hamza al-Zubeidi–who was 18th on their list of 55 most-wanted fugitives and their biggest catch yet.

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