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Iraq: Shi'ites Converge On Karbala; Garner Visits Kurds In North

Karbala, 23 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- Some one million Iraqi Shi'ites are in the holy city of Karbala today for the culmination of a pilgrimage that had been banned by Saddam Hussein's regime. The event commemorates the death of the 7th-century Imam Hussein, a grandson of the Prophet Muhammad. On the sidelines of the pilgrimage, several thousand Shi'ites chanted slogans for the second consecutive day against a U.S.-imposed government.

The U.S.-appointed civil administrator for postwar Iraq, Jay Garner, promised Kurdish leaders they will be able to participate in establishing a democratic Iraqi government.

Garner met with Mas'ud Barzani, the leader of one of the two major Kurdish factions, in the northern town of Arbil. Abdul Aziz al-Hakim, an Iraqi Shi'ite leader, said in Karbala that Garner is not needed to coordinate the postwar reconstruction of Iraq. Al-Hakim is the deputy head of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SCIRI), an Iranian-based Shi'ite group. "There is no need and it's not important for Mr. Garner to stay here. These issues should have been handed over to the Iraqis because the Iraqis can administer and govern Iraq by themselves. The Iraqis should be able to choose their own government and the appropriate leaders for it."

Also, U.S. forces fanned out across Iraq's northern city of Mosul today, establishing four sectors of control in a show of force to bring an end to lingering violence and looting.

The White House repeated that economic sanctions on Iraq must be lifted, "not merely suspended." Yesterday, France urged the UN Security Council to immediately suspend nonmilitary sanctions against Iraq.

Meanwhile, the White House has warned Iran to stay out of Iraq's internal politics.

Spokesman Ari Fleischer told reporters today that the United States has made it clear to Iran that Washington would oppose any outside interference in Iraq's road to democracy. He said infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shi'ite population would fall into that category.

Fleischer said the message has been relayed through what he called "well-known channels of communication" with Iran, with which the United States does not have diplomatic relations.

The U.S. government says it believes Iranian-trained agents have crossed into southern Iraq since the fall of Saddam Hussein and are working to advance Iranian interests.

In other news, British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said today in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Basrah that there are indications that Saddam Hussein is alive and in hiding within Iraq.