News from Beirut May 24   2003   ...Search

Lebanon will not agree to US request to deploy army in south: Lahoud

BEIRUT, May 24 (AFP) - Lebanon will not deploy its army along the southern border with Israel, as requested by the United States, until the Jewish state withdraws from occupied Arab lands, President Emile Lahoud said Saturday.

"We are not obliged to work for Israel's interests as long as it refuses to accept a peace that guarantees a liberation of (Arab) territories and a return of Palestinian refugees" to their homes in Israel, Lahoud told officers at the barracks in the town of Marjayoun, according to a statement from his office.

He was speaking on a visit to southern Lebanon to mark the third anniversary of the end of the 22-year Israeli occupation of the region. "What is being said about a different type of army deployment in the sector aims to guarantee Israel's security outside the framework of the just and comprehensive peace that we are seeking," added Lahoud.

Lahoud was referring to Israel's continued occupation of the disputed Shebaa Farms region, claimed by both Israel and Beirut, as well as the occupied Palestinian territories and the Golan Heights. Some 1,000 Lebanese security forces patrol southern Lebanon, but Beirut has refused to deploy them along the border despite repeated calls from the United Nations and United States.

The border region instead is a stronghold of the armed wing of the Lebanese Shiite Muslim movement Hezbollah, whose fierce resistance to the Israeli occupation helped lead to the May 2000 pullout. During a visit to Lebanon and Syria on May 3, US Secretary of State Colin Powell pressed both countries to disarm Hezbollah, which is backed by Tehran and is listed as a terrorist organization by the US State Department, and secure the border with the Lebanese army.

Lebanon is home to some 380,000 Palestinian refugees, who fled or were expelled from their homes during the 1948 Arab-Israeli war. The Lebanon-Israel border has been largely quiet for the past year, except  for two artillery duels between Hezbollah and Israeli forces in the Shebaa Farms area in August and in January.

Britain to dump showcase Iraq council

BASRA, Iraq, May 24 (AFP) - Britain is to replace an Iraqi city council hailed as a model of post-war cooperation with a committee of technocrats chaired by a British military commander. The decision sparked an angry reaction on Saturday from the 30-member council, which is headed by a local tribal chief and worked to re-establish civic order in the southern metropolis of Basra with British and US blessing.

The so-called Basra interim governorate committee, which will take over the city's affairs, will be chaired by the commander of the British Seventh Brigade, the "Desert Rats," a British forces spokesman here said. It will be made up of heads of public departments and utilities and will eventually be handed over to the US-led occupation administration based in Baghdad.

"It will be a non-political body with authority to make decisions on technical matters, water, electricity supply, etc," the spokesman said. Alongside the technocrats, a separate civic forum will supervise the transition to an elected Iraqi city council. It too will have representatives of the British military, as well as the occupation administration and local politicians.

"It will be concerned with political development with a view to achieving the end state of democratic local government," the British spokesman said. Supporters of the current council leader, Sheikh Muzahem al-Tamimi, expressed anger at the British shakeup, saying the 50-year-old English-speaking businessman, who had been touted as a future governor, had been called in by military commanders Thursday and told he was being dumped.

Councillor Abdul Mahdi Swadi al-Jabri said his colleagues were considering withdrawing their cooperation in protest at what they regarded as punishment for their attempts to act independently. He slammed the British decision to abandon the people who had helped them get the city running again. "If there is no council in Basra, it will be a disaster -- it was the council that restored all the services," Jabri told AFP.

Tamimi, who leads one of the main tribes in the Basra region, was feted by the US-led coalition in the weeks immediately after the war. On May 5, he was visited by General Jay Garner, who was then head of the coalition administration for Iraq, and his coordinator for the southeast region, Danish diplomat Ole Wohlers Olsen.

But Tamimi never made any secret of his association with Saddam Hussein's Baath party and since the arrival of Garner's replacement Paul Bremer two weeks ago, the occupation administration has moved decisively to eradicate all Baath supporters from public life. Jabri expressed dismay at the coalition's change of policy. "They knew from the first that he was a Baath Party official, but that didn't stop them seeking his help," he said.

Six seats on Kirkuk council empty after row

KIRKUK, Iraq, May 24 (AFP) - Only 24 of the 30 members of a local council elected in the oil-rich Iraqi province of Kirkuk Saturday were sworn in after Arab delegates contested the selection of "independent" representatives on grounds they were mostly Kurds.

The row prompted Major General Raymond Odierno, commander of coalition forces in northeast Iraq and of the US 4th Infantry Division, to put off a decision on the six contested representatives until Sunday. The 24 others -- six Kurds, six Arabs, six Turkmems and six Assyrians -- elected by 300 delegates gathered in the town hall of the multi-ethnic northern city were sworn in by Odierno.

The six whose election was disputed are four Kurds, including the only female would-be council member, one Turkman and one Assyrian. "It is unfair that most of the independents should be Kurds," Arab delegate Abderrahman al-Assi protested.

The six were chosen by Odierno from a list of around double that number who had been elected by 144 independent delegates to the gathering. The rest of the 300 delegates were divided into 39-strong groups of Kurds, Arabs, Turkmens and Assyrians. "We had expected him (Odierno) to choose two Kurds, two Arabs and two Turkmens," said Assi, who was backed by other Arab delegates at the conference while Kurdish delegates insisted the selection process had gone as it should have.

"What I learned in democracy is that your candidate does not always win," Odierno said as tension rose in the hall. The US commander, who ordered two independent delegates out of the hall in an attempt to restore calm, said he would defer a decision on the six independent members until Sunday but would "take into consideration the result of the vote" by the independent group.

Unlike the other council members, the six independents are supposed to represent various segments of the community rather than religious or ethnic groups. The six Kurds who took their seats on the council belong to the two main Iraqi Kurdish parties, the Kurdistan Democratic Party (KDP) and the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan (PUK), with each getting three representatives. The Kurdish factions controlled much of northern Iraq under Western protection since the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf war and fought alongside the coalition in ousting Saddam Hussein.

The six elected Arabs are mostly tribal figures. Before the gathering started, five delegates were detained for being members of the deposed Baath party, a spokeswoman for the US-led coalition said. "Five Arab delegates turned out to be Baathists and were detained," Major Josslyn Aberle, from the public affairs office of the US army's 4th Infantry Division, told reporters. She called the five "political detainees."

Iraqi civil servants get their first pay packets since war

by Joelle Bassoul

BAGHDAD, May 24 (AFP) - The US-led coalition began paying Iraq's 1.4 million state employees their wages Saturday for the first time since the fall of Saddam Hussein. Staff dismissed as part of the coalition's new policy of eliminating Saddam's Baath Party from the public sector received no pay packet and many senior civil servants found they were receiving less than before the war as the coalition introduced a fairer pay structure.

The number two in the occupation administration, General Jay Garner, entered Rafidain state bank in central Baghdad's Karada district to launch the payment process. A tank and three Humvee military vehicles stood guard outside the building. Inside, three staff members and US soldiers were counting the money to ensure the April salaries for 6,000 electricity workers in central Iraq. "We are starting today to pay the (April) salaries and it will go on until everybody is paid," said Garner, who led the US administration of Iraq until a new boss arrived last week. "I guess by the 1st of June all the payments will be done," added the general.

Forty-eight staff representatives later took possession of the first tranche of 180,000 dollars and 739 million dinars at a power station in south Baghdad. By Monday, another 28,000 power workers were due to have received their salaries.

"They are the first to get paid because they threatened to go on strike," explained the US-appointed electricity department head, Karim Wahid Hassan. Generator staff have enormous bargaining power at present as the coalition strives to restore power to the large swathes of the capital that have been without electricity throughout the six weeks since the war.

A May 19 failure at the main south Baghdad power station has slowed the process but the coalition hopes to restore supply to 75 percent of the city within a few weeks. From Sunday industry ministry employees were also to be paid and from next Wednesday civil servants outside the capital.

Those in the three northern provinces held by Kurdish militiamen since the aftermath of the 1991 Gulf War will be paid in dollars, those in the rest of  the country in Iraqi dinars. Earlier this month the US-led occupation administration paid civil servants an interim lump sum of 20 dollars to be followed by another 30 dollar payment at the end of this month.

But the influx of greenbacks onto Iraq's volatile informal currency market sparked a sharp rise in the value of the dinar, massively reducing the purchasing power of the many Iraqis who keep their emergency savings in dollars. Last Wednesday, Garner said the money to pay Iraq's public employees would be drawn from Iraqi funds frozen in the United States since Saddam's 1990 invasion of Kuwait.

The cost is expected to run to 130 billion in dinars and 45 million in dollars. In recent days, the dollar has been trading at around the 1,000 dinar mark, but with sharp daily fluctuations. A much narrower pay scale introduced by the coalition to ensure that the cash injection is spread around the Iraqi economy angered some senior officials.

"The new payment system is unfair," said Layla Kassem Mohammad. "I used to get 200,000 dinars a month. Today, I am going receive half that even though I have a university degree and 20 years seniority," complained Faten Abdel Rahman.

Garner said the new pay scale was likely to be "readjusted before the June payment", but coalition officials have stressed that more than half of state employees will be better off.   Civil servants in the top three grades or who held middle- or high-ranking positions in the Baath Party are all being dismissed and in principle received no salary at all.

A spokesman for the occupation administration said there might be "some anomalies" this month as the coalition had not wanted to delay payments any longer while it continues to weed out former Baathists. Some 100 have been dismissed in the past week. The estimated 400,000 former members of Saddam's security forces also received no pay despite almost daily protests. They are to receive a one-off  severance payment at a date yet to be confirmed.

Leading Shiite cleric questions US rule over Iraq on return to holy city

by Kamal Taha

KARBALA, Iraq, May 24 (AFP) - Ayatollah Mohammed Baqer al-Hakim, a top Shiite leader, returned to this holy city Saturday for the first time after 23 years in exile and demanded to know why Iraqis were not running their country. "Have Iraqis reached the age of reason?" Hakim asked in a speech to thousands of the faithful whose shouts had delayed the start of what his aides billed as an important address to the people. "Why do they not have the right to form a government and to manage their affairs?"

Hakim spoke at the Imam Hussain domed mosque, the holiest shrine of the 12 Shiite imams, in Karbala, 80 kilometres (50 miles) south of Baghdad. "Why is the running of the country and the government not transferred to Iraqis? Are they still minors who cannot govern their country?" he added in a series of rhetorical questions which begged only one answer.

Hakim, who made a triumphant return to Iraq this month, called for a government "representing all Iraqis" to be set up. "Let the Iraqis elect who they want," he warned the US-British coalition which has taken over since ousting Saddam Hussein on April 9. "We reject occupation. We want and are working for an authority, an administration and a government which does not play with words, an Iraqi government representing all Iraqis."

Hakim, who lived in neighbouring Iran during years of exile which saw the Baath regime brutally crush any voice of Shiite dissent, blamed the coalition for the lawlessness that has gripped Iraq. The prolonged state of war, despite the end of military hostilities, "allows American and British soldiers to kill Iraqis at any moment under the pretext that they feel threatened," Hakim said. "If they are not able to bring security, these young men can do it," he said gesturing to his followers. Hakim defended himself against charges that he sought to impose a theocracy in Iraq.

"We do not want a war for hegemony waged by the clerics to take power. We want a modern government, but one that respects Islam and its values," he said. Hakim entered Karbala before an ecstatic crowd chanting the traditional vows of sacrifice, previously reserved for Saddam: "With our souls and with our blood, we will sacrifice ourselves for you Hakim!"

Photos of the cleric were displayed everywhere along with banners reading "Freedom, Independence and Justice." He returned to the country earlier this month amid talk of building an "Islamic Iraq" but has since toned down criticism of the presence of US and British troops.

While seen as a hero for his position as an influential spiritual leader among Iraq's majority Shiites, many are sceptical about a future role for him as a political leader who many fear push for an Iranian-style Islamic regime. Hakim heads the Supreme Assembly of the Islamic Revolution in Iraq (SAIRI), a former anti-Saddam Hussein opposition group which has emerged as a leading political force in post-war Iraq. SAIRI holds one of the seven seats on a leadership council that has been working with the United States to help prepare a post-Saddam government.

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