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Iraqi prime minister calls for end to attacks on U.S. troops

BAGHDAD, Iraq—On a day when four American soldiers were killed in an explosion in eastern Baghdad, Iraq's new prime minister on Friday used his first address to the nation to tell Iraqis that, like it or not, they'll have to accept the presence of American soldiers in their country, and he urged them to end attacks on U.S. troops.

"As Iraqis, we don't accept occupation," Prime Minister Iyad Allawi said in a brief speech broadcast on the U.S.-backed al Iraqiya television station and picked up by Arab satellite channels.

But, he said, "the targeting of the multinational forces led by the United States to force them to leave Iraq would cause a major disaster to the Iraqi people, especially before the completion of the building of security and military institutions."

Meanwhile, the military announced that Iraqi police had detained an associate of Abu Musab al Zarqawi, the al-Qaida-linked Jordanian terrorist blamed for a number of bombings across Iraq. Its statement said Umar Baziyani was captured Sunday in Baghdad but provided few details except to say he was "responsible for the death and injury of scores of innocent Iraqi citizens."

The issue of what the new government's attitude would be toward the continued presence of American and other foreign troops has been a much-discussed question here.

Allawi has made clear from the moment his appointment was announced Tuesday that he thinks the United States must continue protecting Iraq, and he spent much of his 15-minute speech Friday arguing that point.

Looking into the camera, Allawi called on "the Iraqi people, people of heroism and sacrifice to rise up" against the threat of violence in their country. He also called for disbanding armed militias.

By all accounts, it will be a hard sell.

Five hours before Allawi's speech, an explosion near the sprawling Shiite Muslim neighborhood of Sadr City killed four soldiers and wounded as many as five. They apparently were members of Task Force Baghdad, which is made up primarily of the Texas-based 1st Cavalry Division. A military spokesman said the explosion appeared to have been from a roadside bomb, but other reports indicated the soldiers had been struck by a rocket-propelled grenade.

Elsewhere, militiamen loyal to cleric Muqtada al-Sadr remained determined to force out the Americans as a poll revealed the militia is gaining in popularity because of it.

The governor of Najaf announced that a truce had been struck between al-Sadr and the U.S. Army that called for the cleric's troops to leave Najaf and the nearby town of Kufa, and for American troops to stay a good distance from sensitive religious sites.

But neither a U.S. military spokesman nor a visit to Najaf and Kufa supported the governor's assertion.

In an e-mail message, the spokesman, who asked not to be identified, said "no such agreement exists," though he did say the governor had decided to send in Iraqi police to guard religious sites, "a truly great event and announcement, as it is symbolic that the government is taking over responsibility for security."

Little seemed to have changed, however, in Najaf or Kufa, which have been largely under the control of Sadr's Mahdi Army militia for the past two months.

Militiamen roamed the streets of both cities freely Friday afternoon, openly displaying AK-47 assault rifles and rocket-propelled grenades.

While they weren't shooting at anyone, a group of men driving around downtown Najaf seemed unbowed. With a heavy machine gun mounted in the back, the men shouted "Victory for Muqtada" as they passed through the streets.

In a poll released last month by the Iraq Center of Research and Strategic Studies, an independent research center in Baghdad, more than 67 percent of the respondents said they supported Sadr. The figure for Allawi was just over 22 percent.

The poll of 1,640 Iraqis, conducted in late April, didn't include residents of Kufa or Najaf.

Earlier in the day, Sadr supporters stormed into Friday prayers in the Imam Ali shrine in Najaf, one of the holiest sites in Shiite Islam, and drowned out prayers with chants promising that Sadr had "only begun to empty the clip of his rifle."

Allawi's speech was the first delivered as a "state of the union" by an Iraqi head of state since the days of deposed dictator Saddam Hussein. Previously, such pronouncements had been the domain of L. Paul Bremer, the American administrator in Iraq.

In addition to urging an end to attacks on international troops, Allawi called for an economic revitalization. He said he planned to increase workers' salaries and decrease Iraq's debts, incurred by the "foolish policies of Saddam."

He gave no specifics on how he planned to prop up the economy, other than saying he would seek to harness Iraq's natural resources.

Allawi, who led the Iraqi National Accord, an anti-Saddam group backed by the CIA, will head the government that takes over after a June 30 deadline for the American-led coalition to return sovereignty.

He appeared to be speaking from the studios of al Iraqiya TV, which are in the "Green Zone," a sprawling complex of American offices encircled by heavily armed U.S. soldiers.

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

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