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Pro-US Chalabi in Baghdad

Washington, April 16 (Reuters): Pro-American Iraqi politician Ahmad Chalabi returned to the capital Baghdad today on his first visit to the city since the overthrow of the monarchy in 1958, an adviser said.

“We’ve just arrived and we have set up a headquarters in central Baghdad,” said Zaab Sethna, who travelled with Chalabi in the motorcade from the southern town of Nasiriyah.

“His first plan is to go see his old home and then start building democracy in Iraq,” added Sethna, speaking by satellite phone from Baghdad.

Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress, was the first major exile politician to reach Baghdad since the collapse of the government of vanished Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein last week.

The US military flew Chalabi to Nasiriyah 10 days ago, giving him a head start over other exiles trying to establish a power base among the Shia population of the south after years of Baathist repression under Saddam.

Chalabi was brought up in the house which is now the Indian embassy in the north Baghdad district of Aadhamiya. After leaving Iraq in 1958 he has lived abroad, mostly in Lebanon, Jordan and Britain. Sethna said Chalabi had no immediate plans to reclaim the building, which was appropriated by the government after the 1958 revolution. “Many Iraqis will make property claims and there has to be an orderly process,” he added.

The INC said Chalabi, a Shia from a prominent family, received a warm welcome in Nasiriyah. But other reports suggest that Shia groups close to Iran and hostile to the US may have a broader following among the southerners.

When the US convened a meeting of politicians near Nasiriyah yesterday to work out how Iraq should be ruled, thousands of Shias marched through the town chanting: “No to America, No to Saddam.” INC officials have said Iran has allowed Iraqis in exile to cross the border from the east with weapons to take control of areas where US forces are thin on the ground.

A top Iraqi Shia Opposition leader, Abdelaziz Hakim, ended 23 years in exile in Iran and went to the southeastern town of Kut today to a rapturous welcome, his son said.

Hakim is deputy head of the Tehran-based Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq, which boycotted the Nasiriyah meeting and has refused to cooperate with US occupation forces in Iraq.

Analysts say the political future of Iraq depends to a large extent on the battle for the hearts and minds of the Shias, who make up more than half of the population.

Around 120 Iraqi exile fighters from Chalabi’s group, trained by US special forces and armed with AK-47s, drove into Baghdad today to a low-key welcome. CNN said a hand-picked unit of the Free Iraqi Forces, who call themselves the Baghdad brigade, was dressed in US-style military fatigues. “In Baghdad they received a cooler reception than they received in other parts of southern Iraq,” a CNN reporter accompanying the fighters said.

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”I didn't see any animosity toward them, I saw people waving and cheering. But most people just watched and were curious who these Iraqis were in different uniforms and carrying AK-47s.”

”In the southern cities they were cheered, and they (residents) chanted the name of Chalabi.”

The U.S. military flew some 700 of the Free Iraqi Forces fighters to Nassiriya with Chalabi on April 6 and Moussawi said some have also deployed in Mosul, where the INC is trying to restore law and order in conjunction with U.S. special forces.

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