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Questions remain on U.S. role in Iraq as government goes to work

BAGHDAD, Iraq—Members of Iraq's new interim government began work Wednesday, and it immediately was clear that they take a sharply different view from most Iraqis on the central issue of U.S. troops.

Most Iraqi officials contend that even with the promise of sovereignty, Iraq needs American forces to remain because they're all that's stopping the country's insurgency from becoming a full-scale civil war. Many ordinary Iraqis, on the other hand, say the presence of the foreign army is causing the unrest.

Like so much in Iraq, neither side leaves much middle ground. Leave the troops in Iraq, some contend, and foment more violence. Take them out, others say, and the nation could fall like a deck of cards. Navigating that uncertainty could prove the biggest test so far for American and Iraqi officials

In new violence Wednesday, six Iraqis reportedly were killed and dozens injured in fighting with U.S. troops in the southern town of Kufa. A car bomb in Baghdad—the third in three days—killed five people and wounded 36.

At the interim government's first Cabinet meeting Wednesday, the newly appointed prime minister, Iyad Allawi, said the foreign soldiers protecting Iraq should be multinational forces under the control of the United Nations. But Allawi noted that the commanding officer of the multinational force might be American, because most of the troops would be American.

Iraq's own security forces—the police and the Civil Defense Corps—are still in their infancy and lack adequate equipment. Until they get more experience, Iraq has no choice but to rely on the U.S. military, said Bakhityar Amin, the new minister for human rights.

The Iraqi politicians plan to lobby the U.N. Security Council for a resolution that would make it clear that they have the final say about troops in their country.

"Iraqis insist on handling security by themselves," the new finance minister, Adil Abdel-Mahdi, said at the Cabinet meeting. "There are intense discussions on security issues before June 30th. When we finish these discussions, the responsibility will be placed correctly between the Iraqi side and the multinational forces. The coming Security Council resolution will clarify the mission of these forces."

The United States has circulated a revised U.N. Security Council resolution that gives a potential end date for the American troop presence in Iraq and says explicitly that Iraq will control its own security forces and the mandate for the multinational force would end by January 2006. The Bush administration has said it will keep the same level of more than 135,000 troops in Iraq after June 30.

In a poll in late April by the Iraq Center for Research and Strategic Studies, an independent Baghdad research center, almost 65 percent of Iraqis interviewed said "the immediate departure of coalition forces" would help improve security.

Shehab Saleh, a painter who was caught in Wednesday's explosion in Baghdad, said he hoped the American soldiers would leave, and leave soon.

Saleh, 45, was standing in front of his house in a western Baghdad neighborhood, talking with his nephew, when they saw the trunk of a red Chevrolet Malibu explode. People ran toward the car as debris "fell like rain," Saleh said.

A couple of minutes later, with a crowd around the car, there was another, more powerful explosion from its front end. Saleh's nephew crumpled to the ground, dead, after shrapnel tore through his chest.

A piece of metal tore a hole through Saleh's left calf, and other bits flew into his back and thigh.

Although the explosions didn't seem to target Americans, Saleh said the presence of U.S. soldiers had created an environment of chaos and anger that led to things such as a bombing in a residential neighborhood.

"Keeping the Americans here is bad for the Iraqi people," said Saleh, whose clothes were streaked with blood. "If they left tomorrow, we would have our security back ... but today, anyone could be killed in the street."

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(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.

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