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Mosul takes first step towards democracy

Basra/Mosul, May 5 (Reuters): The US said today that Iraq should have an interim national leadership in place within weeks, as Iraq’s third-largest city held the country’s first vote since Saddam Hussein’s ouster.

Jay Garner, the retired US general in charge of post-war reconstruction in Iraq, said that former Opposition leaders have been holding meetings to forge an interim government.

“The five Opposition leaders have begun having meetings and they are going to bring in leaders from inside Iraq, and see if we can’t form a nucleus of leadership as we enter into June,” he said on a two-day visit to Basra in southern Iraq.

Earlier in Baghdad, Garner said he expected up to nine Iraqis to form an interim leadership group that would be a point of contact for the Americans.

“By the middle of the month, you’ll really see a beginning of a nucleus of an Iraqi government with an Iraqi face on it that is dealing with the coalition,” he said.

And in the first vote in Iraq since Saddam was deposed, 250 delegates representing rival ethnic groups in Mosul elected an interim council and a mayor to govern the northern city.

Amid loud applause from the delegates, Mosul’s chief judge swore in mayor Ghanam al-Basso, a former army general chosen from a field of three candidates, who was forced to retire in 1993 after being accused of conspiring against the regime.

‘Mrs Anthrax’ arrested

US forces also nabbed another Iraqi fugitive on America’s most-wanted list: a woman scientist knowledgeable about weapons programmes in Saddam’s government, a US defence official said. US intelligence officials have dubbed her “Mrs Anthrax”.

Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash was taken into custody in Baghdad. She was number 53 on the list of 55 wanted former members of the Iraqi government, 18 of whom have been captured or surrendered.

Giving details of moves towards an interim government, Garner said leaders would be chosen by Iraqis and would consist of some returned exiles and some local Iraqis, representing Iraq’s ethnic and religious spectrum.

He said the emerging leadership might include Masoud Barzani, leader of the Kurdistan Democratic Party; Ahmad Chalabi, leader of the Iraqi National Congress; Jalal Talabani of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan; Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord; and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim, a senior official in the Iran-based Supreme Council for Islamic Revolution in Iraq.

The group would likely be expanded to include a Christian and perhaps another Sunni figure, Garner said.

Iraqis decry a breakdown in security and public services in the more than six weeks since the US led an invasion of Iraq to topple Saddam, and have called for a new government to restore order.

In Vienna, the UN nuclear watchdog agency said it had asked the US to let it send a mission to Iraq to investigate reports of widespread looting at the country’s nuclear facilities.

In Mosul, 24 council members from six ethnic groups were sworn in by the city’s chief judge.

“This is the first step on the road to democracy. I promise I will be a faithful soldier,” the 58-year-old al-Basso said as US troops looked on from the fringes of the US-led meeting.

Behind him, the head of the US forces in northwest Iraq, Maj. Gen. David Petraeus, sat watching below an Iraqi flag.

“By being here today you are participating in the birth of the democratic process in Iraq,” Petraeus said.

Mosul is mainly Arab, with a large Kurdish minority as well as Turkmens, Assyrians and other groups. The ethnic mix fuelled fears of factional fighting after a wave of looting and violence last month, but military officials are now holding it up as a “model city,” citing solid progress in restoring order.

US military officials have said it could take up to two years before regular elections are held in Iraq, based on experiences elsewhere in the world.

Garner and his team visited the Zubayr oil refinery near Basra, which its general manager said has been producing 70,000 barrels of oil per day this month and expects to double that output within three weeks.

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