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Shiites demonstrate against U.S. occupation of Iraq

BAGHDAD, Iraq—More than 1,000 Shiites marched Monday in Baghdad to protest the U.S. occupation of Iraq and call for a unified Islamic government, in the latest sign of frustration with American-style nation-building.

"No, no for America," the protesters chanted. "Yes, yes for al Hawza," an influential council of Islamic clerics in the city of Najaf.

Other religious and ethnic groups in Iraq also are frustrated with the slow pace of establishing a new government. Iraqi political hopefuls have started to question America's commitment to rebuilding a free Iraq.

U.S. officials say they must first halt rampant crime and restore basic services in Baghdad. But the danger is that if the process drags on too long, competing ethnic and political groups might take advantage of the power vacuum and try to carve up the nation. Once that happens, American troops would be hard-pressed to dislodge these locally accepted chiefs from their power bases.

In the Shiite protest, one of the largest in Baghdad since the war ended, protesters carried banners that read "Iraq built by the Iraqis" and "We want the Iraqis who are honest, not the thieves." A large green sign hanging across a street said, "Al Hawza will choose the government, not the hotels of the rich people," a reference to the Iraqi political parties taking over private clubs and hotels.

Several women in black abayas, the Muslim head-to-foot covering for women, approached reporters and declared, "I want electricity. I want water. I want security."

Security guards stood on the rooftops with AK-47 rifles as the crowd walked peacefully to a mosque for prayers.

In northern Iraq, meanwhile, Arab-Kurdish violence over the weekend left at least nine people dead and dozens wounded. And the U.S. military has warned that a committed core of Saddam Hussein loyalists is trying to sabotage the rebuilding effort.

The dispute between Iraqi leaders and U.S. officials is over the fundamental questions of who should run an interim government, when they should take over and what they should be allowed to control. There also is a running battle within the Bush administration between Pentagon civilians who support former Iraqi exile leader Ahmed Chalabi and CIA, State Department and uniformed military officials who argue that it's now clear that Chalabi has little support from his countrymen.

Hoshayr Zebari, a spokesman for the Kurdish Democratic Party, warned that America's talk of freeing Iraq from repression would ring hollow unless the United States turned over authority to local leaders.

"The danger is that people will see this as not a liberation campaign, but an occupation," said Zebari, whose group has been closely allied with the United States.

U.S. officials at first were eager to turn over limited power and authority to Iraqi leaders, but they delayed the plan until they can restore a sense of normalcy to Baghdad.

Water and electricity are still in short supply. Carjacking, looting and robbery are rampant.

Until recently, the United States primarily had been talking with five leaders: Chalabi, of the Iraqi National Congress, Massoud Barzani of the Kurdish Democratic Party, Abdul Aziz al Hakim of the Supreme Council for an Islamic Revolution in Iraq, Ayad Alawi of the Iraqi National Accord, and Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan. In recent days, the United States has expanded the group to include members of the Iranian-influenced Dawa party and the son of a former king.

"We are not going to rush to establish an interim authority that is not fully represented," said a senior official who's working on reconstruction in Iraq, who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

The Iraqi coalition is pressing American forces to sign off on its plan to create a self-selected national assembly of about 350 Iraqi leaders that would meet next month to choose an interim governing council with a rotating president. That group would be the de facto government until elections could be held within two years.

The Iraqi coalition and U.S. officials planned to meet Tuesday to discuss the main issue on everyone's mind: security.

Baghdad's police have only started returning to their jobs. Iraqi leaders with their own paramilitary forces have offered to help the United States police the streets. The two main Kurdish parties have offered several thousand supporters to help police the streets.

The offers haven't been accepted. Some members of Chalabi's military force were dismissed after they were caught trying to rob Baghdad homes and cars.

Regarding the weekend's ethnic violence in the city of Kirkuk, some Kurds said Arabs loyal to Saddam attacked Kurdish neighborhoods in an effort to keep more Kurds from moving into the city. Saddam moved Arabs into the region to displace Kurds, and since the war ended many Kurds have evicted Arabs from properties they claim. In the low-income Arab neighborhood of Mamuda, residents said the violence was organized by Kurdish groups who want to control the city.

American forces plan to hold a meeting Saturday to establish an interim city government that eventually will deal with property disputes. Leaders of ethnic groups—Kurds, Arabs and Turkmens—have attempted to make their blocs as big as possible.

Kirkuk's streets were largely deserted Monday.

Maj. William Ostlund, the operations officer for the 173rd Airborne, said many Arabs had gone to cause trouble in Kirkuk from the town of al Huwayjah. On Sunday night, U.S. forces killed about 16 Arab fighters, wounded four others and detained 59 men in several fierce firefights outside the town, 30 miles west of Kirkuk. One American soldier was wounded, William Barnes, 26, of St. Louis.

"This was a well-trained enemy," Ostlund said. "They were sophisticated enough to shoot and maneuver at night."

Spc. Rasheed Sahib, 22, of Brooklyn, N.Y., was killed Sunday in Balad when he and another soldier were cleaning their weapons and the other soldier's weapon discharged. Sahib was part of the 20th Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Infantry Division, based at Fort Hood, Texas. The other soldier's name wasn't released.

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(Knight Ridder Newspapers correspondents Michael Currie Schaffer in Mosul, Iraq, and John Sullivan in Kirkuk, Iraq, contributed to this report.)

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

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