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Bush admits guerillas seek power

12th November 2003

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A compound housing the US-led coalition in Baghdad has come under rocket fire, as US President George W Bush warned extremists were trying to install a Taliban-style regime in Iraq.

Violence also spread to the southern Iraqi port city of Basra where at least four Iraqis were killed in a bomb blast.

In the latest of near nightly attacks on the US-led coalition's Baghdad compound, at least four rockets hit inside the closed-off security zone, but there were no casualties, a senior US military officer said.

One burst in the air just northeast of the main gate to Saddam Hussein's former presidential palace, while a second rocket landed in a parking lot, damaging several cars.

In Washington, Bush charged yesterday that extremists slipping into Iraq to attack US-led forces there aim to replace Saddam Hussein's rule with a regime modeled on Afghanistan's ousted Taliban.

"Foreign jihadists have arrived across Iraq's borders in small groups with the goal of installing a Taliban-like regime," he said in a speech to a friendly audience at the conservative Heritage Foundation think tank here.

Bush has long blamed deadly strikes at US troops on a combination of Saddam loyalists and terrorists from outside Iraq, but it was the first time he has said that they hope to seize control there and emulate the iron-fisted Islamist militia that ran Afghanistan until ousted by US forces in 2001.

Bush specifically listed Osama bin Laden's al-Qaeda network, author of the September 11, 2001 attacks, as well as adherents of the Islamic extremist group Ansar al-Islam, as operating in Iraq.

Prior to the March invasion, Bush repeatedly made the controversial charge that Saddam's regime had longstanding ties to al-Qaeda.

But US forces scouring Iraq for seven months have yet to unearth conclusive evidence to back that allegation or Washington's claim that Saddam possessed vast arsenals of weapons of mass destruction - the central case for war.

Meanwhile, the US civilian overseer in Iraq, Paul Bremer, was summoned to the White House for talks at the White House on the pace of efforts to normalise the war-ravaged nation.

Bremer met Secretary of State Colin Powell, Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and national security adviser Condoleezza Rice to consider changing the US-annointed Iraqi Governing Council and the timing of Iraq's transition to self-governance, the Washington Post said.

One senior official told ABC television there was "serious discussion" about speeding up the transfer of power by having an interim Iraqi leader appointed and by allowing an interim constitution.

In Baghdad earlier, a spokesperson refused to give any reason for the unexpected departure. Bremer cancelled a meeting scheduled for yesterday with visiting Polish Prime Minister Leszek Miller.

As the president raised alarm about an influx of foreign fighters, the top US military commander in Iraq, Lieutenant General Ricardo Sanchez, said the coalition had detained 20 people suspected of belonging to the al-Qaeda terror group.

"We have up to 20 suspected al-Qaeda members as we continue to interrogate them," Sanchez told reporters, adding it was not yet clear if they were definitely members of the terror organisation.

Sanchez also confirmed a Black Hawk helicopter downed over the weekend near Saddam's hometown of Tikrit was most probably hit by a rocket-propelled grenade.

The death of the six soldiers on board the chopper raises the number of US troops killed in action to 154 since Washington declared major combat over May 1.

Tension was still rife in Sadr City two days after the killing of Mohannad Ghazi al-Kaabi, as hundreds of residents marched on the heavily fortified municipal building guarded by the Americans.

The shooting of the US-backed official in an area home to as many as two million Shiites, which has been a source of trouble for the Americans, was sure to inflame the critics of the US occupation.

Kaabi, the top municipal official for Sadr City, died from wounds Sunday after troops shot him when he refused to follow security procedures for entering Sadr City's municipal building, the US military said in a statement, adding an investigation had been launched.

A coalition source said: "Reports suggest he became aggressive.

The soldiers fired a warning shot and then he was hit in the leg".

One US soldier was shot dead by gunmen during clashes in Sadr City in mid-October. That attack was suspected of having been carried out by followers of young Shiite cleric Moqtada Sadr, who has been a vocal critic of the Americans.

In Haditha, 200 km west of the capital, demonstrators rioted, enraged over what they said was the detention of a woman when US soldiers could not find her husband.

The crowd of hundreds clashed with police and shots were fired, leaving two people wounded before the mob proceeded to loot and burn the city hall and police station, witnesses said.

But despite mounting US casualties, "major combat operations have not resumed in Iraq by really any stretch of the imagination," Bush national security adviser Condoleezza Rice told a Seattle, Washington, television station.

Senior US military officials again dismissed calls to deploy more troops in Iraq, where some 130 000 US soldiers and 22 000 forces from other nations are currently deployed. – Sapa-AFP.

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