Iraqi groups agree to help form assembly

From Wire Reports

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- The main Iraqi opposition groups have agreed to help put together a national assembly of more than 350 deputies that would meet this month to name an interim executive council or prime minister to run the country.

Representatives of the opposition groups, which worked with the Bush administration for Saddam Hussein's downfall, have been meeting behind closed doors at the Republican Palace, the U.S. headquarters.

The outline of an agreement for a new government was described by opposition leaders in interviews over the past two days. In addition, Jay Garner, the former lieutenant general charged with administering Iraq since the war ended a month ago, confirmed significant progress on the political front.

"Next week, or by the second weekend in May, you'll see the beginning of a nucleus of a temporary Iraqi government, a government with an Iraqi face on it that is totally dealing with the coalition," he said during a visit to Basra in the south.

The goal of the former opposition groups is to create a provisional national assembly with two-thirds of the delegates chosen from inside Iraq, officials said. But it is the exiles and their allies among the country's Kurdish minority who are organizing the selection process.

"It doesn't have to be perfect, all it has to be is representative," a U.S. official said yesterday, adding, "The key word is interim." An elected government would be expected to follow in one to two years, officials said.

While some Iraqis involved in the negotiations have spoken of creating a prime minister's post, Garner indicated that the more likely outcome is a leadership council consisting of well-known opposition figures, such as the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, Ahmad Chalabi, Ayad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord, the Kurdish leaders Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, and Abdel-Aziz al-Hakim of the Supreme Council for the Islamic Revolution in Iraq. Christians and other Sunnis might also be added, he said.

"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," Garner said.

The accelerated pace of efforts to put an interim Iraqi government into place reflects a growing recognition by U.S. officials that they have been unable to create a nimble civil administration. They say that an Iraqi government supported and assisted by the United States might better cope with mounting anger and frustration over the slow pace of reconstruction and the threat posed by the remnants of Baath Party cells.

"Things are not going so well if you go and listen to the people," said Adel Abdel-Mahdi, who represents Ayatollah Mohamed Bakr al-Hakim, the supreme council's spiritual leader and a Shiite cleric who is expected to return from Iran this week to visit Basra and the Shiite shrine in Najaf. "Security is getting worse; there are no public services and there are a lot of complaints."

Abdel-Mahdi said frustration is rising with Garner's administration, its inability to make decisions and its internal debates over whether to fully remove Saddam's Baath Party structure.

"They are free," he said, referring to thousands of Baath Party loyalists of Saddam. "They are armed, but we are not armed and they know where our houses and offices are." Of the Americans, he said, "I am afraid" they are trying to keep some Baathists around "to frighten us."

Meanwhile, one of Saddam's top bioweapons experts, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, was captured Sunday, U.S. officials announced. Ammash was Iraq's leading microbial genetic engineer, according to U.S. officials.

They said she is believed to have been instrumental in secretly rebuilding Iraq's bio-warfare capabilities in the mid-1990s while she headed a biological laboratory at the Military Industrial Commission, which helped coordinate Saddam's clandestine weapons programs.

"The world is a safer place because she's off the streets," said a U.S. official who spoke on the condition of anonymity.

Ammash is the fifth senior official from Iraq's weapons program in U.S. custody. She has been dubbed "Mrs. Anthrax" in the news media for her alleged involvement in programs to produce lethal biological agents.

"She is definitely knowledgeable about Iraq's biological warfare program, both in terms of the nature and extent of the program and in terms of where facilities and materials might be located," the official added.

Born in 1953 in Baghdad, Ammash received her undergraduate degree in Iraq but did most of her professional training abroad. She was awarded a master's of science degree in 1979 from Texas Woman's University and a doctorate in microbiology from the University of Missouri-Columbia in 1983. She also trained at European research centers.

Ammash served as dean of the faculty of science at Baghdad University.

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