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Stay away from oil, US warned

Baghdad, April 19 (Reuters): As the US military took custody of Saddam Hussein’s finance minister Hikmat Ibrahim al-Azzawi, number 45 on its list of most-wanted Iraqis, eight West Asian states urged Washington to withdraw its troops from Iraq and keep its hands off the country’s oil wealth.

US Marines later began pulling out of Baghdad but only as part of a planned handover to the US army, which is better equipped to handle the reconstruction of the battered capital.

A convoy of 50 trucks was heading from Jordan to Baghdad carrying food, but aid agencies said the repair of Iraq’s collapsed infrastructure and the establishment of a new government were more urgent priorities. Iraqi police captured Azzawi, who was also a deputy Prime Minister under Saddam, yesterday. It handed him over to the Marines today.

Azzawi is the eight of diamonds in a deck of cards issued to troops hunting Saddam and other ousted leaders.

The US military hopes he can help track funds alleged to have been secretly transferred abroad by Saddam and his family, whose fate and whereabouts remain a mystery. “As the deputy Prime Minister for finance and economics he could have information on the locations of money that belongs to the Iraqi people,” said Captain Stewart Upton, a spokesman at Central Command in Qatar.

“He’s a deputy Prime Minister. That in and of itself says that he has knowledge of the inner workings and the command structure of the regime,” he said. Saddam is thought to have amassed a fortune estimated at between $2 and $24 billion over his 24 years in power, much of which may be stashed in offshore accounts overseas.

The US military also said Khala Khadr al-Salahat, an “international terrorist” from the Palestinian Abu Nidal organisation, had surrendered to Marines in Baghdad yesterday. The group has been dormant for several years.

Although Saddam was widely hated, the US presence in Iraq has angered ordinary Iraqis and worried West Asia leaders who fear the troops will stay too long. They question the motives behind the US-led invasion on March 20.

Foreign ministers of Iraq’s immediate neighbours Turkey, Iran, Kuwait, Saudi Arabia, Jordan and Syria, as well as Egypt and Bahrain, said the US had to restore order and then leave so that Iraqis could form their own government. They issued a statement at a meeting in Riyadh saying the Iraqi people must run their country and control the oil wealth.

“The Iraqi people should administer and govern their country by themselves, and any exploitation of their natural resources should be in conformity with the will of the legitimate Iraqi government and its people,” said Saudi foreign minister Prince Saud al-Faisal, reading from a statement.

“If what they (US) intend is the exploitation of Iraqi oil, it will not have any legitimate basis,” he said. The ministers said they wanted the UN to play a central role in post-war Iraq, echoing similar demands made by EU leaders at their summit in Athens on Thursday. Among those was Washington’s war ally Britain.

Washington says it intends to hand over control of Iraq to the Iraqi people after a period of control by a US-led interim administration that will oversee reconstruction. It has called for a quick end to 12-year-old UN economic sanctions, imposed after Iraq invaded Kuwait in 1990, so that oil sales can fund reconstruction. Iraq has the second largest proven oil reserves after Saudi Arabia. Riyadh and Kuwait are concerned that their revenues might be hit if Iraqi oil is again sold on the open market.

Lifting sanctions threatens another diplomatic tussle because it raises the issue of who controls oil sales, now under the aegis of the UN, and so effectively runs the country.

The US army is taking charge of Baghdad from the Marines because it has more resources to deal with the reconstruction and policing desperately needed in the capital, where many residents have no electricity and live in fear of looters.

“This country has collapsed. Nothing works — no phones, no electricity, no schools, no proper medical care, no transportation, nothing,” said Roland Huguenin-Benjamin of the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) in Baghdad.

“It’s more than bringing in food or tablets of aspirin. The basic services need to be restored and a new civil administration must be set up to answer people's needs.”

US forces are trying to restore electricity and police the city, while also hunting for Saddam and other ousted leaders.

The seizure of finance minister Azzawi followed the capture by Kurdish forces of Samir Abul Aziz al-Najim, a senior Baath party official, near Mosul. Azzawi was the fifth of the 55 most wanted to be taken.

There is speculation Saddam kept secret funds abroad. US officials may seek leads on this from Azzawi and Saddam’s half-brother Barzan, once ambassador to the UN in Geneva and reputed “banker in the West”, who is also in custody.

An Iraqi once involved in the country’s suspected nerve gas programme had also surrendered to American forces and was being interrogated.

Imad Husayn Abdallah al-Ani was not on the most-wanted list and denies that Iraq was developing weapons of mass destruction, a US official said.

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