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Iraq: Coalition Forces Tighten Control Throughout Country

Washington, 8 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Military officials say U.S. forces again have made a show of force in downtown Baghdad, while British troops have taken control of much of Basra in southern Iraq. In the north, Kurdish forces backed by American soldiers have been closing in on Mosul and Kirkuk.

In Baghdad, U.S. Army forces have seized one of Saddam Hussein's headquarters, called the New Presidential Palace. While damaged by recent air attacks, the compound still holds gold-painted furniture and other appointments befitting a head of state.

For a time yesterday, U.S. troops also surrounded the Al-Rashid Hotel, where soldiers in tanks used cannons and machine guns against Iraqi snipers. U.S. tanks also surrounded the building housing the Ministry of Information.

Not far away, Iraq's information minister himself, Muhammad Sa'id al-Sahhaf, told reporters yesterday that only "a few" U.S. armored vehicles had entered the city, and that Saddam's forces were dealing with them easily. "They [U.S. forces] have no control, even of themselves. Don't believe them. Those invaders will be slaughtered," al-Sahhaf said.

In northern Iraq, warplanes and ground troops of the U.S.-British coalition have been supporting Kurdish forces who have now taken the strategic town of Dibagah. The Kurds are fighting their way south toward Mosul and Kirkuk, the two largest cities in the north.

U.S. Brigadier General Vincent Brooks -- the deputy operations director at Central Command, which is directing the allied forces -- said at command headquarters in Qatar that the goal is to prevent irregular Iraqi troops, in rural areas of the north, from coordinating with regular Iraqi forces loyal to Saddam's Ba'ath Party that are concentrated in the cities.

"Our efforts are, right now, to isolate regime forces in and around Mosul. We believe, at this point, we've had some success in causing some paramilitaries to leave that area and that leaves some Ba'ath Party enforcers -- is probably the best way to describe them -- in that area," Brooks said.

In the south, British forces have finally taken effective control of Basra, Iraq's second-largest city. The two-week siege of Basra is over, though some resistance remains from elements of the Ba'ath Party, according to Group Captain Al Lockwood, a British military spokesman speaking from allied headquarters in Qatar.

"We've had a very successful operation into Basra, we now control the majority of the city. There is a pocket of resistance in the old city area which we are dealing with," Lockwood said.

With the Iraqi resistance marginalized, hundreds of Basra's 1.3 million civilian residents took the streets yesterday to welcome the British troops. Some greeted them with gifts of pink carnations.

But British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon said the coalition forces are realistic about the attitude of many Iraqis to the invading forces. "Just as it is taking time for the people of Iraq to come to terms with the fact that Saddam Hussein's regime is coming to its inevitable end, it will take time -- after so many years of relentless propaganda -- for them to begin to trust the good faith of the coalition," Hoon said.

British military officials also said yesterday that air strikes on Basra over the weekend may have killed one of Saddam's most notorious lieutenants, Ali Hassan al-Majid. He is known as "Chemical Ali" because he is said to have ordered a poison-gas attack that killed thousands of Iraqi Kurds in 1998.

Britain says al-Majid had not been positively identified as being among the dead, but U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld said yesterday at a Pentagon briefing in Washington that he will no longer be a threat to Iraqis.

"We believe that the reign of terror of 'Chemical Ali' has come to an end. To Iraqis who have suffered at his hand, particularly in the last few weeks in that southern part of the country: He will never again terrorize you or your families," Rumsfeld said.

At the briefing, Rumsfeld also was asked about reports that U.S. soldiers had found suspicious substances -- which could be chemical weapons -- in a compound near Hindiyah, a city about 100 kilometers south of Baghdad.

Senior U.S. officers on the scene were cautious about characterizing the material, and Rumsfeld urged caution about jumping to conclusions. The secretary noted that two tests, taking several days, must be conducted before the nature of the substance can be ascertained.

"We don't do first reports and we don't speculate, and I can tell you it takes days to get samples of things from wherever they are in the battlefield into a first place where they take a look, and then to a second place where things get checked, and I think the proven thing in a case like this would be to kind of let the thing play itself out and we'll see," Rumsfeld said.

Overall, according to Rumsfeld, coalition forces have left little of Iraq for Saddam to control. But he was careful to emphasize that the war is by no means over, and that it would be a mistake not to expect fierce resistance from Iraqi forces that have not already been defeated or who have not surrendered.

Meanwhile, U.S. President George W. Bush flew to Northern Ireland for meetings today with British Prime Minister Tony Blair. The summit, at a castle near Belfast, is the second the two men have held since fighting began on 20 March Baghdad time.

Bush and Blair's discussions are expected to focus not only on how to finish the war. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell, traveling with Bush, said yesterday that it is time to discuss their differences about a postwar administration.

As he has before, Powell said the United States believes that it and Britain should be in charge of postwar Iraq because their armed forces have "paid the costs in lives." He has previously noted that they also are bearing the economic expense as well as the political cost, given that many other countries oppose the decision to go to war.

Blair is expected to urge Bush to share the postwar responsibilities, even with Western allies who vehemently opposed the war but are now expressing an interest in taking part in the reconstruction of Iraq.

The British leader also is likely to press for a large role for the United Nations. So far, the Bush administration has indicated that the UN should be limited to overseeing humanitarian issues. In New York, UN Secretary-General Kofi Annan said he sees a significant role for the world body in postwar Iraq.

"I do expect the UN to play an important role [in postwar Iraq], and the UN has had a good experience in this area, whether it's an issue of political facilitation leading to the emergence of a new or interim administration. And we've done quite a bit of work on reconstruction, working with donor countries and with other UN agencies," Annan said.

Annan said UN involvement is essential in "legitimizing" Iraq's reconstruction. To demonstrate the importance with which he views Iraq, he appointed a Pakistani diplomat, Rafeeuddin Ahmad, as his special adviser on the issue.

The secretary-general expressed optimism that Iraq will quickly establish a new political structure. He noted that Iraq is unlike other regions such as Kosovo and East Timor where the United Nations has worked to establish credible governance. Annan noted that Iraq already has many accomplished civil servants, engineers, and other professionals capable of molding the country's political future.