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Self-proclaimed Baghdad mayor prepares for office amid skepticism

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Mohammed al Zubaidi smiled for the television cameras as supporters carried the self-proclaimed new mayor of Baghdad through a city plaza Sunday, but bystanders were far from impressed.

Al Zubaidi, a former Iraqi exile, said last week that a local council elected him to lead the Iraqi capital. The U.S. military says it doesn't recognize anyone as mayor yet. Al Zubaidi is a close associate of Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi, a pro-American former exile who also has returned to Baghdad, with help from the Pentagon.

"We don't want a new regime with people we never heard of," said Majid Ahmed, 37, an office employee who was outside the Palestine Hotel. "The Americans brought these people here for what? ... I want someone liberal and democratic."

After 20 years of brutal dictatorship, there are few potential political leaders who are respected by ordinary Iraqis—or even known to them.

Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the man charged with running Iraq until the Iraqis form their own government, was expected to arrive in Baghdad on Monday. His mission is to preside over a U.S. presence as long as is necessary to ensure a transition to a stable democratic government, and not one day longer, the White House has said.

How long that might be was a subject of growing debate Sunday.

One influential Bush adviser on Iraq said Sunday that the United States might be able to pull out of Iraq within "a matter of months," but other experts predicted an American military presence of at least two years and quite possibly longer.

Richard Perle, a member of the Bush administration's Defense Policy Board, said the transition to Iraqi rule "could be short, a matter of months. I would hope it would be only a matter of months.

"The sooner we can leave, the better, and we can leave as soon as there is an Iraqi government or even an interim Iraqi government in place," he said on NBC's "Meet the Press."

But Chalabi said on ABC's "This Week" that U.S. troops need to stay until an election is held, which he said "should take two years."

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted the mission would take years. "That may understate it," he said on "Meet the Press."

And former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger predicted that U.S. troops would stay more than two years, noting that troops have been in Bosnia for six years.

"It will be necessary to establish a government and to help to protect that government against people who are trying to overthrow the system that is emerging," Kissinger said on CNN's "Late Edition."

Iraqi religious and political leaders launched talks on a new government last week, but satisfying the demands of competing religious and ethnic groups and a secular middle class won't be easy, said Daniel Goure, a military analyst and vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank.

The Pentagon hopes to turn over control of Iraq to an interim government in 120 days, according to one defense official, but Goure called that overly optimistic.

"Look at what we experienced in the Balkans, and we didn't have a lot of the problems we are facing now," he said.

Troops will be needed to stabilize Iraq and to hedge against the possibility of military action against Iran or Syria, said John Pike, military analyst with GlobalSecurity.org, a research group in Washington, D.C.

"The notion that we might have 100,000 troops celebrating Thanksgiving in Iraq is very easy to believe," he said.

Meanwhile in Iraq on Sunday, two more of the 55 former Iraqi leaders wanted by the U.S. military were reported captured. The coalition said it took Abd al Khaliq Abd al Gafar, the minister of higher education and scientific research, into custody Saturday. Al Gafar was No. 54 on the list.

The Iraqi National Congress told the military that it has No. 40, Jamal Nustafa Abdullah Sultan al Tikriti, a son-in-law of Saddam Hussein's, and would turn him over to coalition forces in Baghdad.

Also, an estimated 1 million Shiites, many on foot, headed for the holy city of Karbala in a pilgrimage that was banned during Saddam's rule. The pilgrims slowed the movement of Marines, who are leaving Baghdad to redeploy south. But the priority goes to the pilgrims, said Col. Tim Regan of the Army's V Corps.

Otherwise, signs emerged that normal life is beginning to return to the Iraqi capital.

Electricity returned to part of western Baghdad for the first time since the war, although most of the city remains without power.

At one downtown store, where a week ago moldy bread and a few canned goods were the only offerings, canned cheeses and fish were stacked several feet high, and the coolers were packed with fresh chickens.

Several gas stations reopened, with long lines outside, although presumed looters were still selling gasoline from cans on the streets.

Some schools talked of opening within the next week for the first time since March 18.

Iraqi police appeared to have expanded patrols, and women were increasingly seen on the streets, a sign of improving security.

In other developments:

_The Army's 101st Airborne Division found 1,000 to 2,000 suicide vests at an undisclosed location south of Baghdad. The vests were loaded with explosives and detonation devices.

_Syrian President Bashar Assad told two visiting U.S. lawmakers that his country will not protect any Iraqi war criminals. Top Bush administration officials have warned Syria bluntly in recent days that they expect cooperation from him on many fronts.

"We got a specific commitment that he will not harbor any war criminals and he will expel any that get into his country," Rep. Darrell Issa, R-Calif., said on the ABC show "This Week."

Assad also denied allegations that Iraqi weapons of mass destruction were smuggled into Syria, said the other lawmaker on the trip, Rep. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va.

_President Bush, speaking to reporters after attending Easter service at Ft. Hood, Texas, said Syria is showing signs of cooperation. "There's some positive signs," he said. "They're getting the message that they should not harbor Baath Party officials, high ranking Iraqi officials."

_A small crowd of Iraqis demonstrated in Baghdad seeking American help in locating relatives who disappeared during Saddam's regime. Baghdad and the southeastern city of Amara have been swept by rumors of subterranean prisons in recent days. Searches have turned up nothing. Most Iraqi prisons appear to have been emptied by their guards shortly before coalition forces arrived, according to U.S. Marine Corps reports.

_A convoy of food for animals at the Baghdad zoo arrived. Kuwait donated a month's supply of dry feed and a two-week supply of fruits, vegetables and meat.

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(Rosenberg reported from Baghdad; Guynn and Moritsugu reported from Washington. Also contributing were Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Juan Tamayo, Matthew Schofield, Nancy Youssef and Andrea Gerlin, all in Baghdad. Peter Smolowitz contributed from Doha, Qatar, as did Jeff Wilkinson from Kuwait City.)

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(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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