U.S. selects new Iraqi security force commander

Many regarded initial pick as too close to Hussein


BAGHDAD, Iraq - U.S. military commanders said yesterday that they had selected a new commander for the Iraqi security force in Fallujah, dropping a general who had been accused of involvement in widespread repression under Saddam Hussein.

The U.S. commanders said they had chosen Muhammad Latif, a former intelligence officer, to lead the Iraqi security force. Unlike the man he is replacing, Maj. Gen. Jassim Muhammed Saleh, Latif appears to have been regarded as an opponent of Hussein.

According to a former Iraqi officer who served under him, Latif was imprisoned for seven years in the 1990s after he disobeyed an order from Hussein involving the movement of his troops.

Saleh, on the other hand, was regarded by many Iraqis as so close to Hussein that his resurrection by the Americans ran the risk of putting in charge of the city the very people they had been fighting to expel. Several Shiite members of the Iraqi Governing Council had protested Saleh's involvement because of his reported role in the violent crushing of the Shiite uprising against Hussein in 1991.

A senior U.S. officer said yesterday that Saleh would most likely retain some responsibilities in the security force, possibly as a commander of one of the battalions.

The Fallujah security force, a hastily assembled group of about 900 Iraqis, is seen by the Americans as a means to secure control over the city without an assault by the Marines. Fighting over the past month, set off by the killing and mutilation of four American contractors, has left hundreds of Iraqis and dozens of U.S. soldiers dead.

In other news yesterday, former Iraqi human rights minister Abdel Basset Turki, who resigned April 8 in anger over the U.S. military offensive after the contractors' deaths, blamed U.S. civilian administrator L. Paul Bremer III for ignoring abuses of Iraqi detainees at Abu Ghraib prison near Baghdad. "In November I talked to Mr. Bremer about human rights violations in general and in jails in particular. He listened but there was no answer," Turki said.

Fighting continued in many parts of Iraq yesterday. South of Baghdad, one U.S. soldier was killed and two others were wounded in an attack on a group of soldiers who were guarding a weapons cache that had been discovered the night before. In another incident, a Marine was killed in Al Anbar province west of Baghdad during a "security and stability" operation there.

The continuing violence raised new questions about the ability of the coalition and the United Nations to implant a political process here.

Yesterday, a U.N. official outlined a process by which Iraqis were expected to nominate members of an Iraqi electoral commission, which would be empowered to help draw up rules and create an electoral infrastructure for nationwide elections scheduled to take place in January.

Under the process described by the official, Iraqis could nominate members to serve on the electoral commission, though the final decision on membership would be left up to the United Nations, the Iraqi Governing Council and Bremer.

But because of the violence, only 13 of the country's 18 governorates are able to nominate members of the commission. The official said his team would push ahead with the process and hope that the security situation improves.

One of the few bright spots for the Americans this week was the escape of Thomas Hamill from his Iraqi kidnappers, which was spelled out in greater detail yesterday. Hamill, a private contractor from Macon, Miss., was kidnapped by insurgents April 9 but managed to slip away from his captors Sunday and run to a group of soldiers from the New York National Guard who were on patrol near the city of Samarra.

Yesterday, as Hamill left Iraq for an American hospital in Germany, the soldiers described how they found him. Hamill, they said, was holed up inside a small mud-brick hut in a desolate area when he heard the sound of Humvees. He pushed his way through the door and ran toward the soldiers.

"He was shouting, `I'm an American, I'm an American POW,'" said Lt. Joseph Merrill. "He was unshaven and thinner than when he was taken, but other than that he was OK. He was just real happy to see us."

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