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Iraq: Violence Sparks Rift Between Washington And Governing Council

Prague, 10 April 2004 (RFE/RL) -- The violence in Iraq is causing a widening rift between Washington and the Iraqi Governing Council -- the likely nucleus of the new sovereign government due to take political power on 30 June.

Over the past few hours, at least one member of the council has suspended his participation in the U.S.-appointed body. Shi'a member Abd-al Karim al-Mahmadawi said after meeting with radical Shi'a cleric Muqtada al-Sadr -- whose supporters have clashed with coalition troops in Baghdad and southern Iraq -- that he will boycott the council until "bleeding in all Iraq" ends.

"The least of my worries is that they are going to tell us prematurely to leave...because they are going to need us for security for some time to come." -- Colin Powell
Similarly, a Sunni member of the council, Ghazi al-Yawir, has threatened to resign from the body unless the coalition peacefully resolves the crisis in Al-Fallujah, which remains sealed off by U.S. marines. Fighting in Al-Fallujah and nearby points in majority Sunni central Iraq has killed a reported 400 Iraqis and caused casualties among U.S. forces, including 12 Marines killed mid-week in Al-Ramadi.

Al-Yawer said that "if the Al-Fallujah problem is not resolved peacefully in a way that preserves the dignity of its people, and if America does not fulfill its promises...and if they insist on using excessive force, then I will submit my resignation."

There are mixed reports of other Governing Council members threatening to suspend participation or tendering their resignations. Iraq's interim health minister told AFP that Abd-al Basit Turki, the country's human rights minister, has resigned.

The Governing Council -- which the U.S. formed last year as the first Iraqi body to legitimize the coalition administration of the country -- issued a statement overnight calling for "an immediate cease-fire and for resorting to political solutions for situations in some parts of the country, particularly in the city of Al-Fallujah."

Earlier, Governing Council member Adnan Pachachi denounced the U.S. operations targeting Al-Fallujah as "collective punishment" of the city's inhabitants.

"We denounced the military operations carried out by the American forces because in effect it is [inflicting] collective punishment on the residents of Al-Fallujah," Pachachi said.

The U.S. launched operations to restore coalition authority to Al-Fallujah in the wake of the killing and mob mutilation of four Western security contractors in the city last week. Council members have said they agree with efforts to arrest and punish those responsible but that the result has been, in the words of one member, "the mass punishment of a city."

Washington has yet to comment on the protests by the council members. However, top U.S. officials have acknowledged that the level of violence across Iraq in recent days is unprecedented since the U.S. declared the end to major combat operations in May last year.

U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, appearing on several U.S. television news shows last night, told Fox News that "it's been a tough week, let's be clear about that." He told CNN that Washington did not expect so much unrest one year after the toppling of Hussein but that U.S. commanders have a "handle on" the situation.

"What we have seen over the past few days is stronger than anything we have seen previously. And I must say it is more than I expected to see at this time. But nevertheless, I think our commanders have got a handle on it, they understand it, and they are going to be able to deal with it," Powell said.

Powell also said the United States remains committed to handing Iraq's sovereignty over to an interim Iraqi government on 30 June. The top U.S. diplomat said earlier this week that the leading option for forming a sovereign government is to expand the current 25-member Iraqi Governing Council, but he gave no further details.

Powell also said this week that the new interim Iraqi government may have to accept some limits on its sovereignty and that the U.S. would work out agreements for its troops to remain in the country after the handover and for Iraq's armed forces to remain under U.S. command.

Asked by reporters on 8 April if he was worried that the interim government might demand U.S. troops leave, Powell said: "The least of my worries is that they are going to tell us prematurely to leave...because they are going to need us for security for some time to come."

U.S. forces unilaterally suspended operations in Al-Fallujah for much of yesterday to give time to Iraqi leaders, including members of the Governing Council, to negotiate an end to the fighting there. During the suspension, crowds of women and children left the city but by nightfall fighting was reported to have resumed. U.S. forces were reported to be using gunships to strafe targets while soldiers and insurgents exchanged mortar fire.