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Updated: 11:37am ET
  April 16, 2003

(AP Photo)
Iraqis Begin Building New Government
Iraqis Take the First Steps Toward a New Government Under American Guidance

The Associated Press

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April 15

Iraqis began building a new government under American guidance on Tuesday and received an assurance that the United States has no desire to rule their country. "Our victory in Iraq is certain, but it is not complete," said President Bush.

After 27 days of fighting and the certainty of an interim U.S.-led governing authority anti-American anger flared. But U.S. forces also won cooperation from Iraqis eager to restore order and vital services to their war-torn land.

There was little fighting reported, but no shortage of business for the tens of thousands of troops still in Iraq. U.S.-led forces consolidated their hold in Tikrit and other areas not fully under their control, hunted for evidence of Saddam Hussein's weapons of mass destruction and sought information on U.S. prisoners of war.

At the Pentagon, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said he believed troops had shut down an illegal oil pipeline said to export up to 200,000 barrels of oil daily to Syria.

Under a gold-colored tent at one of Saddam's former military bases, dozens of Iraqis and exiles met under U.S. auspices to begin discussions on a postwar government.

White House envoy Zalmay Khalilzad assured the group the United States has "no interest, absolutely no interest, in ruling Iraq."

The United States showcased the meeting picking the site near Ur, the biblical birthplace of Abraham and flying in reporters.

Dozens of representatives from Iraqi factions attended, exiles and in-country residents among them.

Others boycotted, though, amid opposition to an interim authority to be established under the direction of Jay Garner, a retired U.S. general.

The group released a 13-point statement that said the new Iraq must be democratic, the rule of law must be paramount and Saddam's Baath Party "must be dissolved and its effects on society must be eliminated."

It wasn't immediately clear whether the paper was drafted by U.S. officials in advance of the meeting.

Participants voted to meet again in 10 days.

Half a world away, Bush stopped short of a formal declaration of victory in Operation Iraqi Freedom.

"Today the world is safer, the terrorists have lost an ally, the Iraqi people are regaining control of their own destiny. These are good days for the history of freedom," he said.

There was another sign that the war was nearing an end. French President Jacques Chirac, a prominent critic of the war, telephoned Bush. In their first conversation in more than two months, Chirac appeared to soften his demand that the United Nations have a central role in postwar reconstruction.

After nearly a quarter-century of living under a regime that punished dissent with death, Iraqis experimented with freedom of speech.

"No to America and no to Saddam," chanted thousands of Shiite protesters in Nasiriyah, objecting to the U.S.-sponsored conference held not far outside that southern city.

"Americans are against freedom and democracy," shouted one man in Tikrit, Saddam's birthplace and the last major population center to fall to U.S.-led forces.

And in Kut, military officials said hundreds of protesters blocked Marines from entering city hall to meet a radical anti-American Shiite cleric who has declared himself in control.

There were ample signs, though, of Iraqis welcoming and cooperating with the American forces who established an armed presence in their midst. Some Marines in Tikrit wore flowers in their uniforms, gifts from residents of the city.

Joint Iraqi-U.S. patrols made their first forays into Baghdad. American commanders reported ample assistance from Iraqis eager to help the troops uncover some of the regime's secrets.

"We're getting millions of these tips, some credible, some not so credible," said Lt. Col. Philip DeCamp. The United States was offering incentives, too. Defense officials said the Pentagon would pay rewards of up to $200,000 for information on the whereabouts of regime leaders.

Soldiers patrolling northern Baghdad found a mobile AM radio station in a warehouse at the Iraqi railroad yard, and worked to clear a city park from hundreds of munitions left from an Iraqi artillery and mortar position.

In his remarks, Bush said the war marked a "crucial advance in the war against terror." And despite accusations leveled against Syria in recent days by administration officials, Secretary of State Colin Powell said there are no plans for a military move against the Damascus government.

Powell said Iraq was "a unique case" that required U.S. military action.

Officials have accused Syria of having a program to develop weapons of mass destruction, and of providing safe harbor to regime leaders fleeing Iraq. Syria has denied the charges.

The meeting near Ur took place close to a 4,000-year-old ziggurat, a terraced-pyramid temple of the ancient Assyrians and Babylonians. Participants included Kurds, Sunnis and Shiites from inside the country as well as others who have been in exile.

Americans picked the groups to be represented, but each faction selected its own representatives.

There were some boycotts, one of several indications of the difficulty confronting those attempting to build a government where religious and ethnic rivalries flourish. In addition, some Iraqi opposition leaders fear the United States is trying to impose Ahmed Chalabi, head of the Iraqi National Congress opposition group, as leader of a new Iraqi administration.

Even some of those at the meeting said they opposed U.S. plans.

"We will press for any Iraqi civilian administration regardless of what the Americans say. An administration by Garner is not acceptable," said Mowaffak al-Rubaie, an Iraqi physician and opposition activist.

Ibrahim al-Jaafari, one of the leaders of the Daawa party, an influential Shiite group, turned down his invitation. "We have our reservations against attending a meeting called for by a military side," he said.

"Iraq needs an Iraqi interim government. Anything other than this tramples the rights of the Iraqi people and will be a return to the era of colonization," said Abdul Aziz Hakim, a leader of the largest Iraqi Shiite group, the Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

photo credit and caption:
Delegates listen to remarks at the opening of the US-sponsored meeting on post-war Iraq Tuesday April 15, 2003 at the Tallil Air Base, near of Nasiriyah, in southern Iraq. The United States convened a meeting of Iraqi opposition groups for the first time since Saddam Hussein's fall to spell out its vision of the initial steps for Iraq's future. (AP Photo/Tim Sloan, Pool)

Copyright 2003 The Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.

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