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Iraq: Coalition Gains; Bush, Blair Discuss Postwar Plans

  • Andrew Tully

Washington, 9 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- The U.S. military says American forces have been tightening their control over Baghdad, while U.S.-backed Kurds are gradually moving closer to Iraq's key northern cities.

British military officials in the southern Iraqi city of Basra say they have taken the first step toward establishing a new governance in that southern city.

U.S. President George W. Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair discussed broader postwar administration in Northern Ireland.

In Baghdad, U.S. Army units yesterday beat back scattered groups of Iraqi fighters while American Marines, fighting their way into the city from the east, took control of the Rasheed military airport.

The Marines also captured a prison where they found a large store of ammunition as well as some American military uniforms and suits to protect soldiers from chemical weapons. It was not known if the equipment had belonged to U.S. prisoners of war.

At a Pentagon press briefing in Washington yesterday, Major General Stanley McChrystal summarized the U.S. presence in Baghdad this way: "Coalition forces now have a substantial presence in and around Baghdad and continue to work to isolate the city. We are conducting raids from a couple of directions into Baghdad proper and rooting out resistance wherever we find it."

McChrystal said the U.S. and British forces also enjoy air superiority over all Iraq.

In the north, meanwhile, Kurdish media reported yesterday that Kurdish forces -- with air and ground support from the Anglo-American alliance -- have moved within sight of Kirkuk. The reports say the Kurds now hold the Sekamian Plateau, a strategic highland about eight kilometers north of the oil city.

And in southern Iraq, British forces, which now control Basra, have begun establishing a postwar civil administration in the country's second-largest city. A local sheik was named yesterday as Basra's civilian chief, according to Colonel Chris Vernon, a British military spokesman.

"We have been approached by a local tribal leader, a sheikh -- I am not naming him, as yet, and the British divisional commander met him last night. He will form, at present, the leadership within the Basra province, and we have asked him to form, from the local community, a committee that he thinks is representative of the local people."

The British spent two weeks besieging Basra, a city of 1.3 million people, and did not take full control of it until 7 April. Once the forces loyal to Saddam Hussein were routed, hundreds of the city's residents greeted the British troops, and their trust is growing, according to Blair.

"I think anyone who has seen the joy on the faces of people in Basra -- as they realize that the regime that they detest is finally collapsing -- knows very well that this was indeed a war of liberation and not of conquest."

Blair spoke at Hillsborough, a castle outside the Northern Ireland capital of Belfast, where he and Bush met to discuss postwar Iraq, particularly what role the United Nations would have in governing and rebuilding the country.

Many European leaders, including Blair, have urged a central UN role, especially in organizing a new government chosen by the Iraqi people. The Bush administration, however, reportedly prefers limiting the United Nations to the lesser role of supervising humanitarian aid.

Yesterday, Bush indicated that the U.S. position has not changed. Asked how he envisions the UN's involvement, the American president said: "That means food, that means medicine, that means aid, that means a place where people can give their contributions, that means suggesting people for the I.I.A. [Interim Iraqi Authority], that means being a party to the progress being made in Iraq."

Washington's view on UN involvement has been most explicitly stated by U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell. He says the United States believes that the coalition partners should be in charge of the transition period that precedes elections for a new Iraqi government.

Powell says that is only right because the United States and Britain have borne the economic and political costs of going to war against Iraq, and their forces have paid the cost in lives lost.

Yesterday, however, Bush was emphatic about the allies' desire not to interfere with the choices made by the people of Iraq in shaping the government they want.

"I hear a lot of talk here about how we are going to impose this leader or that leader. Forget it. From day one, we have said the Iraqi people are capable of running their own country. That's what we believe. The position of the United States of America is: The Iraqis are plenty capable of running Iraq, and that is precisely what is going to happen."

To ensure that, however, the coalition first must oust Hussein and his regime. Early yesterday (Prague and Baghdad time), U.S. officials announced that on 7 April an American warplane had dropped four precision-guided bombs on a building in a residential area of Baghdad where senior Iraqi officials -- including perhaps Hussein himself -- were believed to be meeting.

This was the second time that U.S. forces had tried to kill Hussein, and again there was no way to verify whether they had been successful. At the Pentagon, McChrystal said the effort was worthwhile.

"His [Saddam Hussein's] role as military commander and dictator, moral leader of that regime -- he and a group of others probably militarily are key at that point. As much as they can exert any kind of influence, even if it's limited in Baghdad, we'd like to reduce that."

But in Northern Ireland, Bush said what really counts is whether Hussein is capable of controlling his government and his armed forces, even if he is alive.

"That grip I used to describe that Saddam had around the throats of the Iraqi people [is] loosening. I can't tell you if all 10 fingers are off the throat, but finger-by-finger, it's coming off."

But as the allies' tighten their control over Iraq, their forces also continue running the risk of killing innocent civilians -- including journalists covering the war. Yesterday, an American tank in Baghdad fired at the Palestine Hotel, where many journalists have been staying. Two journalists were reported killed in that incident, and at least three others were wounded.

At yesterday's briefing in Washington, Pentagon Spokeswoman Victoria Clarke said the soldiers were merely defending themselves against hostile fire coming from the hotel. She reminded the reporters present that Baghdad is a war zone, and said she had discouraged the entry of even more reporters into the Iraqi capital.

"Baghdad in particular, we believe, would be a dangerous place. We continue to warn people, we continue to warn news organizations about the dangers. We've had conversations over the last couple of days with news organizations eager to get their people unilaterally into Baghdad. We were saying, 'It is not a safe place, you should not be there.'"

The Committee to Protect Journalists wrote a letter to U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld demanding an investigation of the journalists' deaths.