U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld paid a short visit to Iraq today, nearly six weeks after the Washington-led military coalition invaded that country to overthrow the regime of Saddam Hussein. Rumsfeld's visit coincided with reports that U.S. troops had been involved in a new bloody incident near Baghdad.
Prague, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld was in Iraq today to visit American and British soldiers who took part in the military campaign that culminated with the toppling of Saddam Hussein's regime.
Rumsfeld, the most senior U.S. official yet to visit Iraq since the war, landed in the British-controlled southern city of Al-Basrah before heading for Baghdad. For safety reasons, the timing of the visit and Rumsfeld's itinerary were kept secret until the last minute.
The U.S. official flew aboard a U.S. military aircraft from neighboring Kuwait, escorted by black-clad special operations troops.
In Al-Basrah, Rumsfeld thanked the coalition troops for what he said was their "remarkable accomplishment" in toppling Hussein's regime and hailed the liberation of Iraq, which he described as an achievement for the region and the world.
"When one looks back on this effort, I think and pray indeed, that what will be significant is that a large number of human beings, intelligent and energetic, had been liberated and that they are out from under the heel of a truly brutal, vicious regime. And that's a good thing. It's not only a good thing for them, it's a good thing for this region and it's a good thing for the world."
The visit coincided with Arab and Western media reports that U.S.-troops had opened fire on demonstrators in Al-Fallujah, 50 kilometers west of Baghdad.
The shooting -- the second such incident in less than 48 hours -- reportedly left at least two demonstrators killed and two others wounded.
On 28 April, an estimated 13 Iraqis were killed and another 75 were injured when U.S. troops opened fire on civilians reportedly protesting the use of a school as an army barracks. The U.S. military claims the troops acted in self-defense and were fired at by two dozen gunmen mixed with the protesters, but eyewitnesses deny any gunfire came from the crowd.
Al-Fallujah is a Sunni Muslim religious stronghold and the incident on 28 April marked the culmination of three days of tension amid complaints from local residents of a cultural clash over the American presence in this center of Islam. Britain's "Times" newspaper yesterday quoted American soldiers as saying they had been met with widespread hostility from the moment they settled in that city on 25 April.
The Al-Fallujah incidents illustrate how high tensions run in the country and provide a grim backdrop for upbeat remarks Rumsfeld made in Al-Basrah.
In a tacit admission that the situation remains highly volatile in Iraq, U.S. Major General Glenn Webster told Baghdad residents yesterday that troops reinforcements will be dispatched soon to bolster security in the capital: "In the next two weeks an additional 3,000-4,000 soldiers will move into the city to help us help you."
Some 12,000 U.S. troops are currently deployed in Baghdad, patrolling the streets of the capital with the help of Iraqi police volunteers.
In Baghdad, Rumsfeld met top U.S. commanders at their base in Abu Ghraib, a former presidential palace recently renamed Cobra Base by the American troops.
Rumsfeld used the visit to record an address to the Iraqi people in which he pledged coalition troops would remain as long as necessary to restore democracy in the country. In comments obviously meant to allay concerns of the Iraqi population, Rumsfeld also denied the coalition had any intention of "owning or running" the country.
The U.S. defense secretary later visited a power plant in southern Baghdad and held talks with Jay Garner, the retired army general in charge of the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance for postwar Iraq.
Garner earlier this week chaired a meeting of clerics, tribal chiefs, businessmen, and freshly returned exiled politicians to examine ways to enhance governance in post-Hussein Iraq. Delegates agreed to hold a nation-building conference in four weeks to discuss setting up an interim government that would run Iraq until new elections are held.
The opposition leadership council, which was set up last February under U.S. auspices to serve as the core of a future Iraqi interim cabinet, is expected to meet tomorrow in Baghdad.
In an interview published in this week's edition of "Newsweek" magazine, opposition council member and former exiled businessman Ahmad Chalabi urged the U.S. to quickly restore public services and safety in Iraq. He also said American troops should leave Iraq "as soon as possible."
Chalabi, a leader of the Iraqi National Congress and an alleged protege of the Pentagon, also cautioned Washington against a repetition of bloody incidents such as the Al-Fallujah shootings, in which he said Iraqis have been killed "unnecessarily."