Powell vows to expedite reconstruction aid for Iraq

Secretary of state visits Baghdad unannounced

July 31, 2004|By NEW YORK TIMES NEWS SERVICE

BAGHDAD, Iraq - Secretary of State Colin L. Powell used an unannounced visit yesterday to Baghdad to tell anxious and embittered Iraqis that the United States will stand by its pledge to bring "peace, freedom and democracy" to their country, and to issue a rallying cry against kidnappers, bombers and others who, he said, wanted to return the country to a "Saddam Hussein-like" past.

Powell's visit, his third in the 16 months since Baghdad fell to American troops, appeared to be aimed in part at boosting the uncertain morale of the Iraqi interim government.

In its first month, the government has seen its hopes of drawing support from Iraq's 25 million people - and rolling back the insurgency that crippled the American occupation that ended formally June 28 - blighted by a wave of kidnappings of at least 25 foreigners, four of which have ended in grisly, videotaped beheadings, and by bombing attacks like the powerful blast Wednesday in Baquba, 40 miles north of Baghdad, which left about 70 dead. Bombings have killed many more Iraqis than American troops.

After meetings with Iraqi government ministers, and with the two top Americans in Iraq, Ambassador John D. Negroponte and Gen. George W. Casey, Powell used a news conference to issue an emphatic reaffirmation of the American commitment here. His one tangible promise was to speed the flow of the $18 billion in American reconstruction aid, less than $500 million of which has been released, so that Iraqis could see long-promised improvements in water, electricity and other areas of the country's badly degraded infrastructure.

"Reconstruction and security are two sides of the same coin," Powell said, because Iraqis who see their lives improving will be less likely to support or condone the insurgency.

But he delivered what amounted to a stiff lecture for Iraqis, and for countries that have wavered or retreated from the American-led effort here in the face of the kidnappings and insurgent attacks, saying they should weigh their actions carefully before buckling to those who aim to frustrate the American attempt to revive Iraq as a model of representative government in the Middle East.

"These are killers and murderers who are killing innocent people who have come to Iraq to help the Iraqi people to a better life," Powell said in answer to a question about the kidnappings and beheadings, the most recent of which involved two Pakistani truck drivers killed Wednesday. "There is nothing romantic about this; there is nothing justified about this. These are murderous acts, they are terrorist acts, and the world must stand united. We cannot allow this kind of activity to deter us or to cause us to go off course."

Powell seemed incensed after an Iraqi reporter made what amounted to a statement in support of the insurgents in Fallujah, the rebel-controlled city 35 miles west of Baghdad, saying their leaders were not foreign-based terrorists, as American officials have alleged, but Iraqis defending their homes and families against American military excesses.

"The United States does not wish to be an occupying authority," Powell said. "The United States wants to help the sovereign government of Iraq protect its people and build a better life," and nothing it had done justified bombings, kidnappings and other "killings of innocent people," he said.

"Those who are setting off these bombs, those who are conducting these kidnappings, are doing them for the purpose of returning to the past, returning to the days of a Saddam Hussein-like regime which will fill mass graves, which will have rape rooms again, which will destroy the infrastructure which was destroyed by 35 years of dictatorial leadership, not by the conflict of last year," Powell said. "I don't think the Iraqi people want to go back to the past."

In the 12 hours before Powell arrived here from Kuwait, where he returned to spend last night before flying to the Bosnian capital of Sarajevo today, , the scale of the fighting that continues to tie down 130,000 American troops - and its effects on Iraq's civilian population - were underscored by a new battle in Fallujah, which stands as a symbol of how far the rebels have gone in defying American military power.

At least five important regional centers within 100 miles of Baghdad - Fallujah, Ramadi, Najaf, Samarra and Baquba - have become virtual no-go areas for American troops in recent months, or are at least so infested with insurgents, and so prone to sophisticated ambushes and bombings, that American commanders are wary of committing troops in those cities in anything but overwhelming force.

Details of the Fallujah fighting were scarce, since the risk of kidnapping has deterred Western reporters, and some Iraqi journalists, from entering the city for much of the past three months.

But doctors at a local hospital said at least 13 people were killed and a dozen others wounded, when American troops and insurgents engaged in overnight clashes. Video footage from Associated Press Television News showed a wounded man lying in a hospital with his trousers covered in blood, saying that his mother and sister had been killed. "What is our fault?" the man said.

An American military spokesman said the fighting began with an insurgent attack with mortars, rocket-propelled grenades and small-arms fire on a joint patrol position on the city's southern outskirts near U.S. Marines and Iraqi troops.

The Marines responded with tank and artillery fire, as well as aerial bombing of a building that the military spokesman said the insurgents had used as a refuge.

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