US expects Iraq government “nucleus” by mid May

BASRA/MOSUL–Iraq (Reuters)–The US reconstruction chief in Iraq predicted on Monday the "nucleus” of a government by mid-May–as the northern city of Mosul held the country’s first vote since US-led forces ousted Saddam Hussein.

"By the middle of the month–you’ll really see a beginning of a nucleus of an Iraqi government with an Iraqi face on it,” retired US General Jay Garner said in Baghdad.

US President George W. Bush appointed Garner to head post-war reconstruction following the US and British invasion in March.

In Mosul–Iraq’s third largest city with a large Kurdish minority–delegates from rival ethnic groups elected an interim council and a mayor to govern the city in the first vote in post-war Iraq.

"This is the first step on the road to democracy. I promise I will be a faithful soldier,” Mosul’s new mayor–former army general Ghanam al Basso–said as American troops looked on from the fringe of the meeting.

Basso–58–had been forced to retire from the army in 1993 after being accused of conspiring against Saddam’s government.

In Basra in the far south of the country–prominent Iraqis have begun meetings to decide on an interim leadership for the country.

Garner–speaking in Baghdad before leaving for Basra–said he expected up to nine Iraqis to form an interim leadership group that would be a point of contact for the Americans.

The group would be chosen by Iraqis and consist of some returned exiles and some local Iraqis–representing the country’s broad ethnic and religious spectrum.

US military officials have said it could take up to two years before regular elections are held in Iraq.

OIL OUTPUT TO RISE

Garner and his team also visited the Zubayr oil refinery near Basra–which its general manager said has been producing 70,000 barrels of oil per day this month and expects to double that within three weeks.

But oil prices in New York rose from recent five-month lows on the lack of progress in restoring Iraqi exports–with New York crude up 63 cents to $26.30 a barrel–more than $1.25 clear of five-month lows last week.

Iraq’s crude oil exports have been halted since the start of the US-led military campaign in March–and the UN Security Council is still split over a new legal framework under which Baghdad could resume sales.

Garner and his team also visited Basra general hospital–a poorly equipped and maintained facility. "We will bring in quick cash to make a quick difference,” said Garner’s deputy–British Major General Tim Cross–but added the aid was not a long-term commitment to revamp the country’s health care system.

In Washington–a defense official said US forces had taken into custody a US-educated microbiologist dubbed "Mrs. Anthrax,” who Washington says was active in germ warfare development under Saddam’s government.

Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash–the only woman included in the US military’s list of 55 most-wanted Iraqi fugitives–was held in Baghdad by US troops–the official said.

In Amman–the aid group Oxfam International said Iraqis should lead efforts to rebuild their country and not Western firms chosen by the United States and Britain in their role as occupying powers.

IRAQIS SHOULD LEAD RECONSTRUCTION

"The work of reconstruction needs to be led by Iraqis and done for the benefit of Iraqis–not for commercial corporations appointed by the US and its allies,” Jo Nickolls–policy adviser on Iraq–told Reuters in an interview.

The head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID)–Andrew Natsios–told Reuters in Washington he was surprised at how much criticism had been leveled at the agency over the process of awarding contracts to rebuild Iraq.

Democrats–a handful of Republicans and officials in some countries–including France–which opposed the US invasion of Iraq–have questioned the transparency of the process and the exclusion of a wider array of local bidders and foreign firms.

The Iraqi reconstruction project is the largest in scale since the Marshall Plan in the late 1940s after World War Two. So far–nine requests for work in Iraq have been issued by USAID and seven of those have been awarded.

Natsios also said the United States was studying ways to restore perhaps a quarter of the marshes of southern Iraq–drained by Saddam to crush the local Muslim Shi’ite population.

The marshes between the Tigris and Euphrates rivers were home to a unique culture and complex ecosystem that lasted thousands of years. The wetlands were largely drained by Saddam to punish the population for supporting a Shi’ite uprising against his rule that erupted after the 1991 Gulf War.

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