Agence France Presse
Around 20,000 demonstrators converged on the southern Iraqi city of Nasiriyah to protest US-brokered talks aimed at sketching out a post-Saddam Hussein administration.
The Pentagon said it was not yet prepared to declare victory after 26 days of war, but US commanders expressed hope Tuesday the main stage of hostilities was over with the fall of Saddam’s hometown of Tikrit.
US officials switched their focus to neighbouring Syria, alleging that Damascus has been developing weapons of mass destruction, prompting calls for calm from the United Nations, Arab and European governments.
The meeting in Nasiriyah was the first since the launch of the war on March 20 and was billed as a major step forward in the search for a new Iraqi leadership.
But the man tipped to become Iraq’s next leader, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the US-backed Iraqi National Congress, was not due to attend.
Iraq’s leading Shiite Muslim opposition group was also boycotting the talks, amid distrust over the US role and division over who should lead Iraq.
Chalabi, who has insisted he is not a candidate for a post in the interim administration to be run by retired US general Jay Garner, planned to send a representative.
Dozens of representatives from Iraq’s fractious mix of ethnic, tribal and opposition groups, including those formerly in exile, were said to be invited although no official list was given.
The New York Times quoted Garner as saying his mission to rebuild Iraq’s political structures would be messy and contentious.
His fears appeared justified as the talks in the Shiite bastion sparked a demonstration estimated by journalists to number around 20,000 people, led by religious figures.
“Yes to freedom … Yes to Islam … No to America, No to Saddam,” the crowd chanted in the centre of the city.
The meeting came against a backdrop of renewed differences across the Atlantic, this time over neighbouring Syria.
US officials have accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of state terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction and harbouring fugitive Iraqi officials.
“We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward,” US Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer branded Syria a terrorist state, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed Syria had carried out a chemical weapons test “over the past 12, 15 months”.
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon joined the offensive, describing Assad as “dangerous,” and urging Washington to put “very heavy … political and economic pressure” on Syria.
But Washington’s main European ally, Britain’s Prime Minister Tony Blair, sought to reassure his parliament, pledging that there were “no plans whatever to invade Syria”.
And at a meeting in Luxembourg, European Union foreign ministers called on Washington to tone down its rhetoric.
“What we need now is to cool off the situation, not to increase the tension, we have enough tensions in the region … not to create more,” said EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana.
The Arab League and the Egyptian government strongly condemned the US accusations.
An advisor to Egyptian President Hosni Mubarak warned the Americans against the temptation to “target one Arab country after another”.
And UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that statements directed at Syria could destabilize the whole Middle East.
“The secretary general is concerned that recent statements directed at Syria should not contribute to a wider destabilisation in a region already heavily affected by the war in Iraq,” Annan’s spokesman said in a statement.
Annan was due to discuss developments in Iraq with European Union leaders in Athens later this week.
Syria’s official media charged that the US accusations were a smokescreen to keep Iraq under occupation.
The tense diplomatic exchanges set a rocky course for the dollar against the yen and euro, as investors nervously eyed developments.
Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters not to expect a US declaration of victory after its capture of Tikrit.
But US and British officers said they hoped the city’s fall meant the effective end of the war, although there was still no sign of Saddam himself.
“I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over because the major Iraqi units on the ground cease to show coherence,” said Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations of the Joint Staff in Washington.
And a drawdown of the 300,000 US force deployed in the region was already underway.
Two US aircraft carriers — the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation — are due to head home from the Gulf as early as this week.
US troops have worked alongside Iraqi police in joint patrols to try to restore order.
But life in Baghdad remained far from normal six days after US troops entered. Most shops remained closed, and many parts of the city still lacked water or electricity.
And US forces tried Tuesday to prevent the media from covering a third day of anti-US protests by Iraqis outside the hotel housing a US operations base in central Baghdad.
Some 200-300 Iraqis gathered outside the Palestine Hotel to express their rage at what they said was the US failure to restore order after the fall of Saddam’s regime.
For the first time, visibly-angered US military officials sought to distance the media from the protest.
Copyright 2003 AFP