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Iraqis Protest U.S., Demand Islamic State

Times Staff Writer

Thousands of demonstrators poured into the streets of Baghdad after Friday prayers to protest the U.S. presence in Iraq and demand an Islamic state to take the place of Saddam Hussein’s secular government. The protests underscored a significant problem the United States faces here as the country’s power vacuum increasingly unnerves a people accustomed to iron rule.

In one of the first public demonstrations here in decades, marchers -- Shiite and Sunni Muslims alike -- waved banners and chanted slogans, including “No to Bush, no to Saddam, yes to Islam,” and “Leave our country, we want peace.”

Hours later, Ahmad Chalabi, the leader of an exile group who has strong ties to the Bush administration, held his first news conference in the capital and said he expected an Iraqi interim administration to take over most government functions from the U.S. military in “a matter of weeks rather than months.”

But Chalabi, who left the country as a youth and is at best a controversial figure among Iraqis, also signaled that the United States may have a presence in Iraq for a long time, pointing to three time-consuming tasks facing the U.S. military here: eradicating any forbidden weapons, dismantling the ousted regime’s “apparatus of terror” and disarming the regime’s army.

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In Afghanistan, which apparently had no weapons of mass destruction, the United States still has troops on the ground nearly 18 months after the war’s end.

In Baghdad, the issue of governance and bringing the shattered country under control loomed large Friday as U.S. forces faced continuing skirmishes north of the capital, a video surfaced purporting to show Hussein surrounded by an adoring crowd on the day the allies entered the city, and U.S. Central Command officials in Qatar announced the detention of another regime insider.

U.S. special operations forces took into custody Samir Abdulaziz Najim near the northern city of Mosul after he was handed over by Iraqi Kurds.

Najim, the four of clubs in the U.S. military’s “deck of cards” of most-wanted Iraqis, was a Baath Party official, a regional command chairman for the Baghdad district. He is believed to have “firsthand knowledge of the Baath Party central structure,” said Army Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks, spokesman for the Central Command.

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The fate of Hussein, meanwhile, remained unknown. Abu Dhabi television, which aired the video of a man identified as Hussein, said it was made April 9 -- two days after the U.S. targeted the Iraqi president with an airstrike. The station also played an audiotape said to be that of a speech by Hussein.

There were continuing skirmishes between the U.S. Army’s 4th Infantry Division and Iraqi paramilitary forces as the division continued its move north of Baghdad between the towns of Taji and Samarra. During the fighting, the U.S. forces destroyed eight vehicles and captured more than 30 enemy combatants, Brooks said.

But it was Friday’s demonstrations in Baghdad that most shed light on the obstacles the United States and its allies face in winning over the Iraqi people.

The protests appeared peaceful but strong. Like an inexorable wave, the demonstrators moved through the city streets, spurred on by imams exhorting them to resist the foreign occupation.

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Some of the banners and chants signaled the unity of feeling among the country’s Muslim faithful about the U.S. presence. Outside one mosque, protesters shouted, “This homeland is for the Shia and the Sunni!” and “No Shiites, no Sunnis! Yes, yes to united Islam!” Under Hussein’s regime, the country’s minority Sunnis repressed the majority Shiites.

Although Al Jazeera, the Arab satellite TV channel, described the protests as a “significant development” that “would never have been permitted under Saddam,” it appeared that for many people, freedom of speech seemed an intangible benefit in contrast to more immediate needs such as electricity and other basic services.

More than a week after U.S. troops entered Baghdad, a city of 5 million people, most people are without electricity, there is no phone service and only a handful of hospitals are open to care for the sick.

Though some police officers returned to work Friday, crime in the city was largely uncontrolled. Looters set fire to more public buildings, including the information ministry, sending enormous plumes of black smoke high into the sky over the city.

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Adding to the unease is the vacuum of power in a country that for so long had been ruled by a dictator. Many Iraqis hated Hussein, but they knew what to expect.

Now, with most offices and businesses closed and no new government in sight, they are at loose ends, making it easier for Muslim religious leaders to appeal to their yearning for certainty and rules.

Although retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the designated civil administrator for Iraq, plans to arrive by the middle of next week with a staff of 500, for the moment there is no clear U.S. or Iraqi leadership here.

Chalabi, the only pro-U.S. spokesman to appear on the scene, is distrusted by many Iraqis, who believe the U.S. has already anointed him as the new president, even though he has repeatedly said he would not take part in the interim administration of the country or run for president.

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At his news conference, he carried himself with the authority of someone who has power.

Held in the exclusive Iraqi Hunting Club, with its tennis courts, indoor and outdoor pools, gardens and large reception rooms, the event seemed designed more for the international news media than for ordinary Iraqis. Chalabi, wearing a gray suit and dark tie, entered and paused before a bank of cameras, looking first right, then left, then straight ahead, much as American presidential candidates do when they first appear at their party conventions.

Speaking fluent English and Arabic, Chalabi appeared almost too prepared, fielding a range of questions with no hesitation and hewing closely to the American line.

He dismissed any role for the United Nations in Iraq’s governance and had cool words for France and Germany, the two European countries that led opposition to the war.

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“The United Nations and the Security Council have been less than helpful -- they dealt with Saddam as if he was a normal state. The U.N. did not recognize the seriousness of the repression in Iraq,” he said.

Chalabi outlined a two-year transition period in which Garner’s team would restore basic services within “a few weeks.” Then, an interim Iraqi government would be chosen -- Chalabi left vague how the government would be selected -- and a constitution would be written. Within about two years, he said, there would be elections to choose a permanent government.

While he repeatedly denied he had any presidential ambitions, Chalabi had a slip of the tongue when answering a question about Iraq’s future relationship with France and Germany. He began by saying, “We will maintain” and then quickly corrected himself and said, “I expect the future Iraq to maintain diplomatic relations with all countries.”

While Chalabi spoke enthusiastically about the country’s burgeoning democracy, a supporter who had placed a Chalabi poster on his vehicle’s windshield a few blocks away faced a hail of bullets from men he claimed were relatives of Saddam Hussein.

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Haqi Ismael said he was in his pickup truck when two men, who he said were neighbors, opened fire on him from a nearby house.

Unharmed but shaken, he said, “I was just in my own neighborhood.”

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Times staff writer Tracy Wilkinson in Kuwait City contributed to this report.

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