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Shiites Take Complaints to Streets of Baghdad

Peaceful demonstrators seek the creation of an Islamic government. Bremer cancels a trip to northern Iraq, where anger is growing.

May 20, 2003|Azadeh Moaveni and John Hendren | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Thousands of Iraqis marched through a Shiite neighborhood of Baghdad on Monday, shouting slogans and carrying banners demanding an end to the American occupation and the establishment of an Islamic government.

The peaceful demonstration came amid mounting frustration at continued shortages of essential services such as water and electricity in the capital, as well as growing concern about delays in establishing an interim government. Shiite religious authorities who organized the event began the protest from a Sunni neighborhood, in what they called a deliberate appeal for Muslim unity in the face of the U.S. presence.

"We want one Islamic government," activist Mohammed Kadhem declared from the back of a flatbed truck, flanked by Muslim religious leaders. "Islam is the will of the masses."

In other developments Monday:

* A U.S. Marine Corps transport helicopter crashed into a canal near Karbala with four crew members aboard, and there were no indications of survivors. Pentagon officials said the crash appeared to be an accident and not related to hostile fire.

* Iraq's new U.S. administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, abruptly canceled a visit to Irbil and Kirkuk, two northern cities where he would have been likely to encounter angry refugees and squatters battling over property lost during Saddam Hussein's ethnic resettlement campaigns.

* The U.S., seeking to obtain consensus at the United Nations, introduced a revised version of a draft resolution to lift sanctions against Iraq. In a concession to U.N. Security Council critics, the new document raises the possibility of U.N. arms inspectors eventually returning to Iraq to confirm the elimination of banned weapons. But it postpones until an unspecified time a council discussion of the issue.

* Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who briefly held Bremer's job and is now the No. 2 person in the civil administration, helped hand out $40 payments to some of the estimated 400,000 people eligible for pensions.

Organizers of Monday's protest expected a larger turnout, given the number of people on hand to direct traffic, distribute posters and spray water on participants sweltering under the noonday sun. The crowd appeared to be about 2,000 strong, although Associated Press estimated that it swelled to 10,000 at one point.

Still, the march was among the largest anti-American protests here since the end of the war. It also marked a fresh attempt by Shiite religious leaders to turn public anger at the continued lack of basic services into popular support for their political aims -- accelerating efforts to end the U.S. occupation of Iraq.

There was little evidence Monday of the sort of jockeying for political influence that has become routine among rival Shiite leaders. Marchers wielded portraits of a variety of spiritual leaders, and the supporters of Muqtader Sadr -- a young religious leader with a growing following -- did not attempt to monopolize the event as they have at previous gatherings.

Oil Ministry Protests

About 100 Iraqis also turned out for small protests at the Oil Ministry and the municipal government building, demanding unpaid salaries, the restoration of basic services and the return of their jobs.

A senior official with the U.S. Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance said he was unaware of Monday's anti-American protests. He characterized such protests as more an example of Iraq's newly won freedom of speech than a challenge to the U.S. occupation.

"That view is out there, but it's not a majority view," the official said. Public frustration has been fueled by expectations that life would improve dramatically as soon as Hussein's regime ended, which has not happened. While Iraqis have a new level of personal freedom since American forces took over the capital more than a month ago, essential services have all but collapsed in some areas.

At the U.N., the U.S. draft resolution, co-sponsored by Britain and Spain, asks U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan to appoint a special representative for Iraq, upgrading the position's status and powers, giving it "independent responsibilities," including collaborating in the process to bring about an internationally recognized elected government in the country.

Critics had argued that the role of Annan's appointee was too vague and too weak.

The document extended from four to six months the phasing out of the oil-for-food program in Iraq and increased the amount of money that could be used to pay countries with contracts that are owed money by Iraq.

Tensions Flare in North

U.S. civil authorities declined to discuss Bremer's decision to cancel his trip to Irbil and Kirkuk. But there is rising public anger in the north over displacements ordered by the former regime that robbed Kurds and other ethnic groups of land and settled Arabs in their place. More than 10 people have been killed in recent days in Kirkuk in clashes between Arabs and Kurds, according to Reuters.

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