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Iraq: War At 'Transition Point' As U.S. Troops Enter Tikrit

Prague, 14 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops now have control of the center of Tikrit, Saddam Hussein's hometown and the last city held by his regime.

Correspondents say U.S. soldiers backed by warplanes and helicopters reached Tikrit's main square early today without encountering strong resistance.

U.S. spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks said that it's still too early to call the war over, though he said decisive military operations are coming to a close. "We are at a point where the decisive military operations that were focused on removing the regime -- destroying its capability, removing its ability to threaten neighboring countries, our coalition forces, or our own countries -- that work is coming to a close. But military work is not at a close and even potential for combat action is not yet over. It will be much more localized when it occurs. It will not be on a widespread scale, and it certainly won't be in response to any organized regime effort. And so it's a transition point that we're in now," Brooks aid.

With military operations winding down, attention is now focused on restoring law and order and on finding new leaders to run the country.

Widespread looting and violence broke out in Baghdad and other cities following the collapse of the regime. International aid officials, as well as ordinary Iraqis, complained that U.S. and British troops were not doing enough to stem the chaos.

British Defense Secretary Geoff Hoon was just one of several British and American officials to say that the disorder was understandable -- but is now being tackled. "It is not surprising that in cities such as Baghdad and Basra, there are criminal elements who will seek to take advantage of the current situation," Hoon said. "We've all seen the pictures of looting, but coalition forces are working with local people to tackle this."

In Baghdad, hundreds of Iraqi policemen and public-service workers have now answered appeals from U.S. troops and an Iraqi police commander to come forward and help tackle disorder in the city.

Two thousand Iraqi policemen reported for work in the capital this morning. That's out of 40,000 who formed the police force before the capital fell to U.S. troops last week.

U.S. and Iraqi security forces started their first joint patrols in the capital today. British troops have made similar efforts in Basra and Faw in the south, where local police and British forces have already begun their first joint patrols.

But doubters say it's not enough. One is Sahib al-Hakim of the London-based Organization for Human Rights in Iraq. He said restoring order is the number-one priority -- ahead of any efforts to set up a postwar administration. "It is not enough at all. They show us some [television] shots, but how about some other areas? We don't know about some smaller cities where TV and media don't reach. We are very worried about this situation, and still I insist that the responsibility of the allies should be to establish law and order now," he said.

Law and order should be high on the agenda of a meeting that the U.S. has called for tomorrow in Nasiriyah. That meeting will bring together the main Iraqi opposition groups based abroad, as well as some Iraqis from within the country. The aim is to start the process of creating a new government to follow a short period of U.S. military rule.

Jay Garner, the retired American general who will run the temporary U.S.-led administration, has promised the meeting will be a "big tent," meaning it will include as broad a spectrum of Iraqis as possible.

Groups invited include the Iraqi National Congress, an emigre opposition umbrella organization; the Iranian-backed Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq; and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan.

Ahmad Chalabi, a leader of the Iraqi National Congress, is already in Nasiriyah with several hundred fighters called the Free Iraqi Forces. A controversial figure, Chalabi has said he won't attend the meeting but will send a representative instead.

The U.S. State Department and the Pentagon will each have representatives at the meeting, which will be chaired by Zalmay Khalilzad, the White House's special envoy for the region. Britain and Australia will send officials, and the UN is planning to send observers.

The meeting is the first of a series that should lead to a Baghdad conference to choose an interim Iraqi governing authority. But there are several obstacles along the way.

One is the suspicion that any interim authority will be a "puppet leadership" with close ties to Washington. U.S. Secretary of State Colin Powell addressed those fears yesterday, saying the country's future government is in the hands of the people of Iraq -- not the U.S. government.

Another question is the balance in any future authority between exiles and Iraqis who lived under Saddam Hussein.

There are already disagreements over whether members of the Ba'ath Party should be allowed to take part in the rebuilding of the country. Chalabi says the party's organization must be destroyed. But British Defense Secretary Hoon said Ba'ath Party members could be used to restore order or take part in rebuilding.

Another potential headache is who should take the top post of leading an interim authority. There are several candidates, including Chalabi, but he has said he is not seeking such a post. Many opposition leaders enjoy little support inside the country. Other candidates are either too close to the country's various ethnic and religious groups or are tainted by alleged misdeeds under Saddam Hussein's rule.