| US secretary of defence Donald H. Rumsfeld (left) with British officer Maj. Gen. Robin Brimms at Basra airport on Wednesday. (AP/PTI)
Baghdad, April 30 (Reuters): US defence secretary Donald Rumsfeld pledged during an unannounced visit to Iraq today that his troops would leave as soon as possible, but fresh bloodshed erupted at an anti-American protest.
Even as Rumsfeld savoured victory in the campaign to oust Saddam Hussein, a leading Arabic newspaper published what it said was a letter from the ousted Iraqi leader in which he urged Iraqis to throw out US and British forces.
In Washington, the White House said Gen. Tommy Franks, who headed the US war effort, had told President George W. Bush that major combat operations were over. This did not signal a formal end to hostilities, spokesman Ari Fleischer said. Residents of Falluja, 50 km outside the capital where 13 people were killed in a rally late on Monday night, said US troops shot dead two more people and wounded 18 during a demonstration today.
US Maj. Michael Marti said members of a convoy returned fire after shots were fired at them from a crowd outside a US command post. He said soldiers counted “potentially” two injured Iraqis.
The bloodshed in Falluja provided a grim backdrop for the visit by Rumsfeld, who recorded a radio and television message saying US troops had no intention of taking over Iraq.
“Let me be clear: Iraq belongs to you,” said Rumsfeld, speaking three weeks after US troops rolled into Baghdad. “We do not want to run it... Our goal is to restore stability and security so that you can form... a government of your choosing,” he said.
Rumsfeld returned to Kuwait later in the day. Also today, leaders of Iraq’s once-exiled political parties met in Baghdad for the first time.
A spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), Zaab Sethna, said the meeting would discuss a call for a national conference by late May to appoint an interim Iraqi authority.
The letter purportedly written by Saddam — it was dated Monday, his 66th birthday — was printed in the London-based Al Quds newspaper and urged Iraqis to unite. “There are no priorities except kicking out the infidel, criminal, murderous and cowardly occupier... Boycott the occupier, this is your duty under Islam, religion and the nation,” said the letter, which Al Quds editor Abdel Bari Atwan said had been faxed to the newspaper.
Atwan said he was confident the letter was authentic. If so, it would be the first firm evidence that Saddam survived the war which included at least two airstrikes aimed directly at him.
Rumsfeld, the most senior US official to visit Iraq since the war was launched on March 20, told about 1,000 US troops gathered in a hangar at Baghdad airport that they had changed the course of history. “You’ve unleashed events that will unquestionably shape the course of this country, a fate of a people, and very likely affect the future of this entire region,” he said.
In earlier remarks in the southern city of Basra, Rumsfeld hailed the removal of Saddam’s “brutal, vicious regime”.
“When one looks back on this effort, I think and pray that what will be significant is that a large number of human beings, intelligent and energetic, have been liberated,” said Rumsfeld, who was last in Iraq 20 years ago as an envoy of President Ronald Reagan. During that visit he held talks with Saddam as Washington sought to contain neighbouring Iran, which Iraq had invaded in 1980.
The elation that greeted the ousting of Saddam has quickly given way in many communities to increasingly angry demands for US troops to go home and leave Iraqis to rule themselves.
The bloodiest protests so far have been in Falluja. After the latest shooting today, a hospital official said he had seen two young men who died of head wounds inflicted by US troops today.