Threatening suicide attacks against U.S. soldiers unless they are paid back wages and pensions, thousands of troops from the disbanded Iraqi army protested Monday outside U.S. occupation authority headquarters and traded insults with the Americans whom they were fighting just a few months ago.
The angry protest came three weeks after U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III officially abolished Saddam Hussein's army, leaving 400,000 soldiers jobless. Many of the demonstrators said they were having trouble feeding their families.
"Dissolving the Iraqi army is a humiliation to the dignity of the nation," read one of many banners carried by protesters, who also called on the United States not to replace the army with a new defense force.
At a news conference later, Bremer said he understood the demonstrators' concerns but added, "We're not going to be blackmailed into producing [job] programs because of threats of terrorism."
Under a decree issued by Bremer, those who held the rank of colonel or above in Hussein's army will not be eligible to join the new defense force. But lower-ranking members will apparently have a chance at new jobs; Bremer noted that doctors employed by Hussein's military have been incorporated into the new Health Ministry.
The threat of suicide attacks comes as the occupation authority is struggling to restore order in Baghdad and get guns and other weapons off the streets. Under a new policy, Iraqis have two weeks to turn in illegal weapons at collection points set up around the capital and register small arms they want to keep for personal protection.
But on its second day Monday, the amnesty appeared to be a bust. Drop-off points were quiet and many Iraqis insisted they would keep their weapons hidden at home, at least until security is restored around the city.
To help feed the former soldiers and others, the U.S. authority has resumed the food-rationing system run by Hussein's regime, distributing tons of food to warehouses. Local agents are to hand out the food.
But at one warehouse in Baghdad's poor Thawra district, agents complained that lawlessness and a fuel shortage would complicate the distribution.
In other developments:
* Retired Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, director of the postwar Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, quietly left the country Sunday. Garner had been pushed into a second-tier role after Bremer was named the top administrator in Iraq last month.
* Electricity supplies continue to improve across Iraq and have now reached 50% of prewar levels in Baghdad, said John Sawars, Britain's senior official in the reconstruction effort.
* Iraqi political leaders met to consider how to respond to Sunday's U.S. decision to abandon a plan to let a national conference of hundreds of Iraqis select an interim government. Instead, occupation authorities will appoint 25 to 30 Iraqis to a political council to serve as an interim administration.
Bremer said Monday that the political council would be assembled in five to six weeks to represent the Iraqi people.
"Iraqis will have more say over their own destiny as soon as an interim administration is in place," he said.
The new plan has dismayed some Iraqi political leaders, who agreed Monday in Baghdad to consider proceeding with a large national conference in tandem with the council established by the occupation authorities. The meeting was attended by representatives of seven Iraqi political groups, including the Iraqi National Congress, who have been advising occupation officials and had hoped to use their early lead in political organization to dominate a national conference.
"We need to carry on with an Iraqi process, because this is what's right, and what meets the demands of the Iraqi people," said Hamid al Bayati, spokesman for the Supreme Council of Islamic Revolution in Iraq.
Meanwhile, a separate meeting of Iraqi tribal leaders with a senior U.S. official came to an abrupt and apparently bitter end after the official acknowledged that the American presence in Iraq amounted to "an occupation." The tribal leaders had been pressing for the U.S. to clarify its intentions in Iraq.
According to Reuters, U.S. envoy Hume Horan told the tribal leaders: "Occupation is not a nice word, but yes, what we have now is occupation. But the objective of this occupation by the coalition is the establishment of a new, free Iraq."