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New Iraqi President Backs Further U.S. Presence

10 April 2005 -- Iraq's new president, Jalal Talabani, said today that he supports a continued U.S. military presence in his country, citing a lack of trained army and security forces.

He also reportedly suggested that the trials of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein and other top officials in his regime would begin within weeks of the formation of a new government.

Talabani was speaking one day after tens of thousands of Iraqis -- many of them supporters of Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr -- demonstrated to demand the departure of U.S. troops and an early trial for former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein.

Talabani said Iraq needs to have U.S. and other allied forces until it can rebuild its military forces. CNN quoted him saying that he expected such a presence to remain for two more years.

Security 'Top Priority'

Talabani said after his swearing-in on 7 April that security is the government's top priority. He also suggested the government might offer amnesty to insurgents if their crimes are not too serious and they forsake violence.

Reuters quoted the Al-Qaeda-linked group in Iraq that is led by Abu Mus'ab al-Zarqawi as dismissing any offer to give up their fight on a website believed linked to the group and other Islamic militants.

"The tail of America, Jalal Talabani, announced a so-called amnesty for the mujahedin [holy fighters] and called on them to enter into atheism, polytheism, and the political game," the group charged, according to Reuters. It then vowed that it "will not give up jihad [holy war] until the country is ruled by God's law."

Saddam Trial

News agency dpa quoted Talabani as saying that the trial of Saddam Hussein and senior former members of his administration will begin "within weeks" after a new Iraqi government is formed.

Ten weeks after Iraq's 30 January elections, a new government has yet to be formed. But progress was made this week with Talabani becoming president and Shi'ite leader Ibrahim Ja'fari named prime minister.

Iraqis demonstrating on the central Baghdad square where a huge Saddam Hussein statue was toppled in a dramatic scene two years ago made his speedy trial a key demand.

Hussein was captured in December 2003 and he was arraigned by a U.S.-backed court in July.

"Saddam Hussein and members of his regime will receive an honest, just, and public trial and will have the right to defend themselves," dpa quoted Talabani as having said in an interview published in the London-based "Al-Sharq al-Awsat" newspaper today.

Talabani also hinted that he would view capital punishment for Hussein if he his found guilty as a "problem" because of his previous international calls for an end to the death penalty, dpa reported.

"I have no right to issue an amnesty for Saddam Hussein," Talabani reportedly told the London-based paper. "However, being a signatory against capital punishment will cause many problems for me personally."

Pakistani Diplomat Kidnapped

Also today, the Pakistani Foreign Ministry said an official who went missing from its embassy in Iraq has been kidnapped.

It said in a statement that Malik Mohammad Javed went missing last night after attending a mosque for evening prayers.

In Islamabad, Pakistani Information Minister Sheikh Rashid Ahmed said his government has approached the Iraqi authorities for help.

"One of the staff members of Pakistan's embassy in Iraq went for evening prayers and did not come back," Ahmed said. "We have some unidentified news that he has been kidnapped. And we have called the Iraqi ambassador here in Islamabad and asked him for the safe release of Malik Mohammad Javed. And we are trying our best for the safe release of Malik Mohammad Javed. And we condemn this action."

Meanwhile, Iraqi lawmakers in the National Assembly held their first meeting since choosing a new prime minister.

A spokesman for outgoing interim Iraqi Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said today that he has agreed that his parliamentary bloc will join the country's new government.

The spokesman said the bloc was in negotiations over what cabinet posts it will receive.

President Talabani vowed on 8 April that lawmakers will meet a mid-August deadline for writing a constitution despite weeks of delay in forming a government.

[For more on events in Iraq, see RFE/RL's dedicated Iraq Votes 2005 and The New Iraq webpages.]