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IRAQ Freedom gives a boost to spirits Shiites, others renew traditions



Published: Sun, April 20, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



COMBINED DISPATCHES

From whiskey to religion, Iraqis tasted freedoms denied for years Saturday in a slow climb back to a normalcy an entire generation never knew. Completing their own journey to freedom, seven U.S. captives from the war flew to a Texas homecoming.

In a widening sweep of officials from Saddam Hussein's toppled government, authorities arrested his former finance minister, hoping he can lead them to the former dictatorship's hidden wealth. They also took custody of the suspected mastermind of Iraq's nerve agent program, who gave up.

Recovery advanced in scattered steps.

Shiites' pilgrimage

Thousands of Shiite pilgrims renewed a tradition banned for decades as they set out on a walk of faith down dusty roads to two holy cities. U.S. troops kept anxious watch and said they would keep a respectful distance as long as the march of three to four days did not turn against them.

"We don't want to interfere with the pilgrimage," said Maj. James M. Bozeman, a civil-affairs officer with the U.S. Army's 82nd Airborne Division, which was helping to police it. "We want it to proceed as normally as possible. But we are prepared for the worst."

In Baghdad, vendors overturned another prohibition from the Saddam era and began peddling whiskey and beer on the street.

There was an influx of necessities, too. A 50-truck convoy brought the first massive shipment of donated food to the capital, including flour. In southern Iraq, British and Iraqi workers reopened a rail line between the port city of Umm Qasr and Basra to spur humanitarian relief supplies to that region.

On another front, Jordanian officials announced the seizure of 42 paintings believed to have been looted from Iraq's National Museum, at best just a portion of Iraq's plundered antiquities from the days of chaos that followed the American occupation of Baghdad.

Coalition military forces in Iraq are putting the finishing touches to a proclamation formally declaring the war over, Australia's foreign minister Alexander Downer said today. Downer told Australian television's Seven Network that final details are still being worked out, "but it will happen in the next few days."

POWs in Texas

Less than a week after being released by Iraqi forces, seven prisoners of war touched Texas soil Saturday evening, amid a flowing crowd and wild cheers from family, friends and relatives. Among them, five Fort Bliss soldiers of the 507th Maintenance Company captured March 23 after their convoy was ambushed.

Two of the former POWs, Apache helicopter pilots -- Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, Orlando, Fla.; and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young, 26, Lithia Springs, Ga. -- were to continue on to their home base of Fort Hood where another welcoming crowd was scheduled to greet them later Saturday.

At a military base in Germany, the crowd cheered for U.S. Army Spc. Shoshana Johnson as she was carried onto the plane on a stretcher. Johnson, shot in both ankles in an ambush, waved happily and flashed the victory sign.

Aside from Johnson, Williams and Young, the other soldiers from the 507th are Spc. Joseph Hudson, 23, of Alamogordo, N.M.; Spc. Edgar Hernandez, 21, of Mission, Texas; Pfc. Patrick Miller, 23, Park City, Kan.; and Sgt. James Riley, 31, Pennsauken, N.J.

With their arrival, a sense of dread that had hung over El Paso -- where Fort Bliss is -- for weeks was replaced by relief. There are yellow ribbons all over the city. And there are also ribbons in Johnson's favorite color -- purple.

Supporters of Johnson, a local high school graduate, tied the purple ribbons from the army base to her home, where a huge sign read: "Welcome Home Shoshana."

After briefly reuniting with their families, the soldiers were expected to be taken to Beaumont Army Medical Center for evaluations, a Fort Bliss spokeswoman said.

Plea from leaders

Meanwhile, restive from the allied occupation, foreign ministers from countries around Iraq have appealed for the United States and Britain to get out quickly, put the United Nations at the center of rebuilding and let Iraqis handle their own affairs at the first opportunity.

The United States has made clear it is not leaving soon. After this initial phase with allies in control, Washington wants power handed over to an interim Iraqi authority broadly influenced by the war's winners, with an independent Iraqi government to follow.

Despite the diplomatic slap from the Mideast session, the United States saw examples of practical cooperation from the region. Sensitive to U.S. charges that it is sheltering senior Saddam loyalists, Syria has banned Iraqis without visas from entering the country, airline officials said.

Testing U.S. capabilities

U.S. capabilities as a stabilizing force in Iraq are being tested in a multitude of ways, from the scenes of bank robberies and commercial plundering to the occasional sniper attacks.

American troops in Baghdad have been guarding bank vaults blasted open by robbers using rocket-propelled grenades. Marines equipped with machine guns and tanks have been standing watch over what they estimated was $1 billion in gold.

Now security forces are trying to smooth the way for the pilgrimage to the holy cities of Najaf and Karbala, and the shrine of the prophet Muhammad's grandson, Iman Hussein. Great religious sensibilities are at stake in policing it.

U.S. forces watched for signs it could turn into an anti-American display; Shiite clerics in Najaf said U.S. soldiers agreed to stay 500 yards back from the burial shrine of Imam Ali, son-in-law of Muhammad.

Shiite Muslims make up 60 percent of Iraq's 24 million people but Saddam's government -- officially secular -- was dominated by Sunni Muslims who often forced the majority's religious practices underground.

In tending to the crowds marching through Baghdad at the journey's start, U.S. authorities reported progress in rounding up more Iraqi figures on their most-wanted list.

Discussing arrest

Central Command spokesman Stewart Upton said the arrest of the finance minister, Hikmat Mizban Ibrahim al-Azzawi, might help uncover money socked away from Iraqi citizens.

"It's money for the people of Iraq, and we seek to have that for the building of the future of Iraq," said the Marine captain. U.S. officials said the newly revamped Iraqi police force arrested him and gave him to the Americans.

He was captured the same day that Emad Husayn Abdullah al-Ani, one of Saddam's top scientists and a suspected nerve-agent specialist, turned himself in to the Americans.

Among others in custody: two half brothers of Saddam, his top science adviser and a leader of his Baath party.




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