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Thousands of Iraqis demonstrate against U.S. presence

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Thousands of protesters in Baghdad demanded Friday that U.S. forces leave Iraq, signaling the difficulty that the U.S.-led coalition faces as it tries to establish an interim government in Iraq.

With looting easing and electricity gradually returning, some coalition forces are turning to a potentially much more difficult challenge: Ensuring a smooth political transition in a country with feuding ethnic and religious groups and where some Muslims reject the U.S. presence.

In the northern city of Kirkuk, U.S. civil affairs troops already have shifted their focus from restoring electrical power to brokering political power among four ethnic factions.

"We've got a lot of work to do," said Lt. Col. Harry Schute of Moorestown, N.J., who commands the 404th Civil Affairs Battalion based in Ft. Dix, N.J.

In Baghdad, troops still are working to restore power and other services. Army officials say they need twice as many civil affairs officers in Baghdad as the 140 there now.

Filling the vacuum is a group of Shiite clerics who want nothing to do with U.S. forces. They oversee a Baghdad slum known as Saddam City. The neighborhood is now patrolled by rifle-toting Shiite guards, even as a U.S.-backed police force patrols elsewhere in the Iraqi capital.

In another development Friday that's unlikely to make Americans feel more welcome, a tape aired on Abu Dhabi television purporting to show Saddam Hussein waving to a cheering throng in Baghdad on April 9—the same day a statue of Saddam was toppled in a Baghdad square. His younger son, Qusai, also appears in the tape.

Saddam appears to be walking in the al Aadhamiya neighborhood, where he previously had been reported near a mosque that U.S. Marines attacked on April 10.

If authentic, the tape would mean that Saddam and Qusai weren't killed on April 7, when a U.S. plane dropped four huge bombs on a Baghdad building where Saddam and his sons were believed to be.

An employee of Abu Dhabi TV said the station couldn't verify the date of the tape, which was given by an unnamed source to the station's Baghdad crew.

"Our sources told us that it was April 9," said someone from Abu Dhabi TV's foreign desk, who spoke on condition of anonymity. "We have the same questions that everyone would be asking: Is this Saddam Hussein or not?"

A U.S. intelligence official, speaking on condition of anonymity, said analysts have concluded that the person in the videotape likely is Saddam, but it's unclear when the tape was made.

Experts "can't rule out the possibility that it was done when they claim it was done," he said.

Meanwhile, Kurdish fighters turned over to coalition forces another of the former Iraqi leaders that the U.S. military is seeking.

Samir Abd al Aziz al Najim, a Baath Party chairman in Baghdad, was captured by Kurds near Mosul. He was number 24 on the military's list of the 55 most wanted Iraqis.

"He certainly has an insight on how the Baath Party control worked," U.S. Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters at coalition headquarters in Qatar.

As tens of thousands of Shiites jammed the streets for Friday prayers in Baghdad's Saddam City—a gathering that would have been banned under Saddam—a Shiite leader said that Muslims have set up a temporary government for Iraq.

The government will last "maybe a few weeks, maybe a few months, maybe longer," Sheik Halim al Fatlawi said.

Separately, however, Mohammed Mohsen al Zubaidi has proclaimed himself Baghdad's mayor. Al Zubaidi is a close associate of Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi, the choice of Pentagon civilians to lead Iraq.

Brooks said the U.S. military doesn't recognize al Zubaidi as the city's new mayor, but that "he is clearly an emerging leader and deserves our interest."

Al Fatlawi is one of a group of clerics who have descended on Baghdad from the Shiite holy city of Najaf. He insisted they have come to bring security and services, not to set up a new government.

The cleric criticized the U.S.-recruited police force, saying it included many former members of Saddam's force. It's a worry shared by many ordinary residents of Baghdad.

"We were afraid of them before, why should we not be now?" one woman said, afraid to give her name.

The new police have steered clear of Saddam City, where Shiite guards patrol with AK-47 rifles.

The task of balancing competing ethnic demands may prove to be even more difficult in Kirkuk, a northern city that both Kurds and ethnic Turks see as part of their heritage.

An interim city committee has been set up there with six representatives from each of the four major ethnic groups.

One of the major issues is sorting out the legacy of Saddam's policy of "Arabization," under which Kurds were pushed out of their homes and Arabs were moved into the city in large numbers.

Schute, a reservist who is a New Jersey State Police detective, said his civil affairs battalion will register claims from Kurds who were forced to leave their homes. But the unit will leave adjudication of those claims to "the future Iraqi judicial system," he said.

On a related front, in Saudi Arabia the foreign ministers of several of Iraq's neighbors denounced recent U.S. saber-rattling toward Syria.

"We should try to make the war in Iraq the last of these turbulences, not leading to other turbulences," said Saudi Foreign Minister Prince Saud al Faisal, opening an eight-nation regional summit on the future of Iraq. "That's why we reject utterly any accusations or threats against Syria."

The participants welcomed the end of Saddam's regime but urged the swift exodus of occupying troops and the creation of an Iraqi government free of outside intervention.

In other developments:

_The Army's 4th Infantry Division fought paramilitary forces as it headed north of Baghdad toward Tikrit. The troops took 30 prisoners and destroyed eight machine gun-mounted pick-up trucks.

"There are still some elements out there that choose to fight and that still have some of the means to fight," Brooks said. "But these are localized. They are sporadic in nature. They're not organized underneath some over-arching command."

_Australian commandos found 51 MiG fighter jets at an undisclosed location in western Iraq. Some of the planes were camouflaged, and others had dirt bulldozed over them. It was unclear if they could fly. The Australians also found small arms, mortar rounds and unexploded ordnance.


(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Carol Rosenberg, Matthew Schofield, S. Thorne Harper, Dave Montgomery and Warren P. Strobel contributed to this report.)


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

PHOTOS (from KRT Photo Service, 202-383-6099): USIRAQ