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Former Iraqi army members stage protest to demand jobs

BAGHDAD, Iraq—More than 2,000 former members of the Iraqi army demonstrated Monday outside the palace where American officials work, demanding jobs to support their families.

It was the latest sign of growing frustration with U.S. plans to provide jobs, stability and a new government in Iraq.

Iraqi political groups that are cooperating with coalition forces met Monday to study the latest U.S. plan for an interim administration. American officials have scrapped the idea of a nationwide conference that would choose Iraqis to lead their country during a transition to democracy. Instead, U.S. officials say they will appoint 25 to 30 people to a council that will be broadly representative of the diverse country.

The ex-soldiers' protest was outside the Republican Palace, the opulent compound that is headquarters for L. Paul Bremer, the top civilian U.S. administrator in charge of reconstruction, and his American-led staff. The demonstrators carried signs that read, "Where are your promises, coalition forces?" in Arabic and "Restudy the decision of the Iraqi army" in English. Some shouted at American soldiers, who pushed the crowds back.

"We don't want to be told, `No job, go away,'" said Qais Saad al Aubadi, 45, who was last paid March 16 and has a wife and five children to support.

"If there aren't changes, there will be trouble," he warned, referring to recent violence against U.S. soldiers.

Bremer said American officials wouldn't be "blackmailed into producing programs because of threats of terrorism."

A new Iraqi army will begin recruiting before the end of the month, but the jobs won't go to former senior members of Saddam's Baath Party, Bremer said at a news conference.

He acknowledged that rising unemployment in Iraq was "an enormous problem."

Thousands of government officials and soldiers were thrown out of work with the fall of Saddam.

"We are fully aware of the difficulties that have been created," Bremer said. He added that the goal was to punish only those who enforced Saddam's brutal policies, not people who joined the army to support themselves.

Bremer has allowed many doctors and other medical staff in the military to move into the Ministry of Health despite their former party connections.

The latest U.S. political plan for Iraq would allow American officials to keep control over who makes up the council that would oversee Iraq's transition to democracy. The council would be charged with finding experienced officials who would work in and eventually run Iraq's 21 ministries. The council also would organize a constitutional convention and draft a new constitution. National elections would come after a constitution was in place.

Coalition forces have been working closely with seven political parties, but those parties don't have wide support in Iraq.

"We want a real Iraqi government, not one that is imported from abroad," said Saliman Mahal al Flahi, an Iraqi. "There are at least 85 political parties in Iraq. It is not good that the Americans are only meeting with seven."

Hushar Zibari, a spokesman for one of the seven groups, the Kurdistan Democratic Party, said his group and the others would continue to work with the Americans. But he said he was frustrated with a political process that seemed to change constantly.

The U.S.-led group that's now in charge of Iraq, the Coalition Provisional Authority, will have the final say over the choice of a council, "but we see this as a process of Iraqis choosing Iraqis," a senior official with the reconstruction team said, speaking on the condition of anonymity. "We're talking to the broadest range of Iraqis that we can and learning as we go."

A spokesman for the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which was backed by the Iranian government, said the seven groups still were discussing other ways of choosing an interim government.

"Our reading of the U.N. resolution is that Iraqis should select their own government, even if it is an interim government," Hamid Bayati said. "We would still like to go ahead with a national assembly."

The U.N. resolution lifted economic sanctions on Iraq and gave the United States and Britain a mandate to run the Iraqi government temporarily.

Also on Monday, the Pentagon identified three soldiers who were killed Friday in an accident near Mosul, in northern Iraq, as Spc. Zachariah W. Long, 20, of Milton, Pa.; Spc. Michael T. Gleason, 25, of Warren, Pa.; and Spc. Kyle A. Griffin, 20, of Emerson, N.J., all with the 519th Military Intelligence Battalion, Fort Bragg, N.C.

U.S. Central Command reported Monday that soldiers from the 173rd Airborne Brigade raided several places in Kirkuk on Sunday and captured six suspected former members of Saddam's regime and a former personal bodyguard of Saddam's son Odai.


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

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