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U.S. QUESTIONS EX-INSIDER AZIZ



Published: Fri, April 25, 2003 @ 12:00 a.m.



Shiite-led Iran denied it is encouraging anti-U.S. sentiment in Iraq.

ASSOCIATED PRESS

Tariq Aziz, often the public face of Saddam Hussein's regime, was undergoing questioning today after surrendering to U.S. forces. Looking ahead, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld said Washington won't allow an Iranian-style Islamic government in Iraq.

Iran in turn rejected Bush administration accusations that it is interfering in Iraq. It said the United Nations -- not the United States -- should run an interim postwar government.

The commander of U.S.-led forces in Iraq, Gen. Tommy Franks, said those troops could remain for "months, or a year or two" to ensure stability as Iraqis develop their new government.

"The fact is we don't know how long it'll take ... because we do not yet know exactly how devoted the Iraqis themselves will be in getting over their own tribal and ethnic and religious difficulties," Franks said in an interview in today's St. Petersburg Times.

Those difficulties could include a drive for an Islamic government by Iraq's Shiite Muslim majority, which was repressed under Saddam.

Rumsfeld said the United States -- which has promised to let Iraqis choose their own leaders -- will not permit the establishment of a religious government comparable to the one in neighboring Iran.

"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," Rumsfeld told The Associated Press.

Only Christian in regime

Aziz, the deputy prime minister of the toppled government, was the only Christian in Saddam's inner circle, most of whom were Sunni Muslims. Fluent in English, Aziz served as foreign minister during the 1991 Persian Gulf War and was a frequent spokesman for Iraq at that time.

U.S. officials hope that Aziz, as a longtime insider, may have information about the fate of Saddam, the whereabouts of regime financial resources and the status of any illegal weapons programs.

Bishop Emmanuel Delly -- whose Chaldean Christian congregation in Baghdad includes Aziz's wife -- expressed some sympathy with Aziz.

"He was a good man; like all of us, he was only doing his duty," Delly said today.

Residents of a well-off Baghdad neighborhood where some of Aziz's relatives live said the family had not been seen for about three weeks, but that some of the clan returned Thursday from wherever they had been.

At one of the family's houses, a woman in her 50s, clearly exhausted, identified herself as a "very close relative," but would not give her name. Of Aziz, she said "He's good, he's fine" and that the family had been worried about his heart condition, but she declined to comment further.

Being questioned

On the U.S. list of the 55 most-wanted members of the former government, Aziz was ranked No. 43. He was detained by U.S. Special Operations personnel after surrendering Thursday, and "is currently being questioned by coalition forces," said Maj. Randi Steffy, a Central Command spokeswoman.

Rumsfeld said more of the top 55 ex-leaders have been captured in the past few days than have been announced. He gave no details and said that once the identities were verified, they would be made public.

Although U.S. officials hope some Iraqi government ministries will reopen next week, there is no firm timetable for installing a provisional government or scheduling democratic elections.

An initial "all-factions" meeting to discuss the political future was held April 15 in southern Iraq, attended by 80 representatives but boycotted by some groups opposed to the U.S. military presence. A second meeting is expected to be held soon in or near Baghdad.

One of the leading Shiite clerics in Baghdad, Sayyed Ali al-Kathimi al-Waethi, said he and his followers would not agree to meetings with Jay Garner, the retired U.S. general overseeing postwar reconstruction.

"People should rule themselves by themselves. The Americans should leave our country peacefully," al-Waethi told The Associated Press.

Accusations against Iran

Garner and the White House have accused Shiite-led Iran of encouraging anti-American sentiment among Iraq's Shiites. Iranian Foreign Minister Kamal Kharrazi denied this.

"We welcome true democracy and a government run by the people in our neighbor country, but we won't support one specific party," Kharrazi told reporters.

"Only when a U.N. government takes control in Iraq will there be no more suspicions and accusations from other countries," Kharrazi said.

The United Nations refugee agency said today that up to half a million Iraqis could go back to their country -- many after decades in exile -- since the fall of Saddam's government.

Until now, the focus of the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees was on preparing for a possible flood of up to 900,000 refugees out of Iraq during the war. However only a handful of people fled into surrounding countries.

UNHCR estimates that 165,000 Iraqi refugees living in Iran, Syria and other neighboring countries could eventually return home, along with 240,000 more who don't have formal refugee status. It also expects returns by about 95,000 other Iraqis, including asylum seekers, from various other nations.

Former Iraqi spy chief Farouk Hijazi has been captured by U.S forces in Iraq, a U.S. official said today.

Hijazi is Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and a former senior intelligence operative, although he was not among the top 55 most wanted officials.

Copyright 2003 Associated Press. All rights reserved. This material may not be published, broadcast, rewritten, or redistributed.




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