U.S. war commander makes trip to Baghdad

Thursday, April 17, 2003

The top commander of U.S. forces in Iraq briefed President Bush on the war from inside one of Saddam Hussein's ornate palaces on Wednesday, underscoring the death of the old regime.

Four weeks after the war began, American troops raided the Baghdad home of the mastermind of Iraq's biological weapons laboratory and also discovered a recently abandoned Palestinian terrorist training camp on the outskirts of the capital.

Army forces exchanged fire with a small number of die-hard paramilitary fighters north of Baghdad, then took out two surface-to-air missile systems and three anti-aircraft guns left over from Saddam's military.

Iraqis in Mosul said three people were killed and at least 11 wounded when shooting erupted for the second straight day. Iraqis blamed the Americans, but the circumstances were cloudy.

Gen. Tommy Franks, in command of more than 200,000 troops in the war zone, lit up a cigar as he toured the palace just outside Baghdad that had been part of Saddam's realm. Franks and other senior officers sat in plush green chairs with gold and wood trim for the briefing with Bush in Washington, held over a secure videoconference linkup.

Earlier, the four-star general viewed, with evident disgust, gold sink fixtures, a gold toilet paper dispenser and a toilet bowl brush inside one of the bathrooms.

"It's the oil for palace program," he said, a biting reference to the U.N. program that allowed Iraqi oil exports on condition that the proceeds went to food for civilians.

Franks' visit to Baghdad, from his command headquarters in Qatar, came less than two weeks after Army tanks first rumbled through the capital and one week after Iraqis, aided by Marines, toppled a statue of Saddam in a downtown city square, signaling the end of his regime.

Saddam twice was the target of U.S. bombs dropped on places where he was believed to be, but his whereabouts are unknown. U.S. officials say they don't know if he is dead or alive.

"The fact of the matter is, though, he is gone. Whether he is dead or alive, he is gone," Secretary of State Colin Powell said. "He is no longer in the lives of the people of Iraq."

Slowly, cities across Iraq were struggling to shed the effects of the war. After days of looting and mayhem in Baghdad, Americans armed newly recruited Iraqi police officers with handguns to help keep order. And citizens sought to pick up their normal lives.

"The market is open and products are available," said Tadamoun Abdel-Aziz as she shopped with her son for eggs, bread and vegetables in the downtown Irkheita Market. But with power only partially restored and temperatures in the 90s, some residents bought 3-foot blocks of ice.

American commandos backed by about 40 Marines staged the raid on the residence of Rihab Taha, dubbed "Dr. Germ" by U.N. weapons inspectors. Taha, a microbiologist, was in charge of Iraq's secret biological laboratory, suspected of weaponizing anthrax.

Three men emerged from the raid on her home with their hands up, and American troops removed several boxes of documents. Her whereabouts were unknown.

Administration officials cited the desire to eliminate weapons of mass destruction as one key reason for the war, although none has yet been found. "We're really just in the early stages of that" search, Brig. Gen. Vincent Brooks told reporters at a briefing in Qatar.

A Marine spokesman, Cpl. John Hoellwarth, said the terrorist training camp consisted of about 20 permanent buildings on 25 acres south of Baghdad, and was operated by the Palestine Liberation Front and the Iraqi government.

He said recruits were apparently instructed in the art of bomb-making, adding that Marines found chemicals, beakers and pipes at the site, along with questionnaires that asked recruits to state their preference in missions. Hoellwarth said many volunteered for suicide missions.

In the continuing diplomatic conflict with Syria, the Arab nation denied American accusations Wednesday that it is sheltering a high-level Iraqi diplomat -- or any other senior members of Saddam Hussein's regime.

U.S. officials in Washington said that Farouk Hijazi, Iraq's ambassador to Tunisia and once the No. 3 man in the Mukhabarat, Saddam's intelligence service, apparently had surfaced in Syria.

Hijazi is believed to be one of several high-ranking Iraqis who made their way across Iraq's western border to Syria, said the officials, speaking on condition of anonymity. He is believed to have come from Tunisia, not Iraq.

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