Self-Styled Mayor of
Iraqi Challenged U.S. Authority
Washington Post Foreign Service
Monday, April 28, 2003; Page A01
The U.S. Central Command accused Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, a previously unknown member of the country's exiled political opposition who has spent the past 10 days holding forth as Baghdad's mayor, of interfering with U.S. efforts to resuscitate Iraq's government and exercising authority he did not have. The command alleged in a statement that Zubaidi had been trying "to take political and personal advantage" of the power vacuum in the city by attempting to wield power "not representative of the interests of the people."
Zubaidi's aides said that he and his principal deputy, Jawdat Obeidi, were arrested after being lured to the sprawling Republican Palace grounds, now home to the U.S. civil-military coordination center, under the pretense they were being granted a meeting with Jay M. Garner, the retired Army lieutenant general who is serving as Iraq's day-to-day administrator.
The Central Command said Zubaidi and several people accompanying him were detained near the coordination center, although five of them eventually were released. Zubaidi and another man -- believed by his aides to be Obeidi -- were removed from Baghdad and placed in an internment facility elsewhere in Iraq to prevent Zubaidi's "continued misrepresentation of his authority as the mayor of Baghdad," the command said.
U.S. forces also detained the chief Iraqi liaison to the U.N. inspection teams, which had been scouring the country for signs of banned weapons before the U.S. military invasion. Gen. Hossam Mohammed Amin, the erstwhile director of Iraq's National Monitoring Directorate, turned himself in to soldiers from the U.S. Army's 101st Airborne Division in the northern city of Mosul today. Amin was ranked 49th on a list of 55 Iraqis most wanted by the U.S. government
In a reminder of the dangers that remain for U.S. forces in Iraq, four soldiers on a public-health mission were wounded, one seriously, when an attacker opened fire on them in central Baghdad this morning, the Central Command said.
Shortly before Zubaidi was arrested, U.S. officials who have assumed interim civil administration duties here met with 10 senior officials of Baghdad's former municipal government, including the deputy mayor for technical services and deputy mayor for administration, to discuss efforts to restart water and electric service and garbage collection. "Our goal is to work with the structure to get the city back not just where it was, but better," said Barbara Bodine, a former U.S. ambassador who is serving as the Pentagon's administrative coordinator for central Iraq.
Bodine said an "emerging leadership" for Iraq would begin to appear at a major meeting of political leaders, many of them former exiles, on Monday in Baghdad. Between 300 and 400 representatives of various political, religious and ethnic groups are expected to take part in the all-day gathering, she said.
Deputy Defense Secretary Paul D. Wolfowitz said about three-quarters of the participants lived in Iraq through Hussein's three-decade rule, not in exile. "It's a chance for people who haven't been able to express an honest view for 35 years to do so," he said.
Wolfowitz said that in some cases, "it's very hard to know" the sentiments and skills of the participants, but that the U.S. government was trying to include them in the process in an effort to create a representative interim government.
Conspicuously absent from the meeting will be Zubaidi. A Shiite Muslim who had lived outside Iraq for 24 years, Zubaidi had portrayed himself as a volunteer trying to help rebuild Baghdad's infrastructure and restart essential government services. Claiming he was selected by a 22-member council of businessmen, clerics and intellectuals to run this city of 5 million people, he set up shop in a downtown hotel, where he met with tribal sheiks, religious leaders and former officials in Saddam Hussein's government. In between the meetings, he issued a flurry of edicts designed to establish control over city services and police.
Although the U.S. ground commander in Iraq, Army Lt. Gen. David D. McKiernan, had warned Zubaidi on Wednesday to move out of the Palestine Hotel and cease his activities, Zubaidi responded with indifference, simply relocating to the Sheraton Hotel across the street and a neighboring social club.
While U.S. military officials insist they have no current relationship with him, his past connections to the U.S. government remain unclear. When Zubaidi first claimed to be mayor, he met regularly with Army and Marine officers in the city. He also has been doling out favors to his supporters -- providing them with portable generators, for example -- that suggest he has a deep-pocketed sponsor. But he has denied receiving money from the U.S. government.
A U.S. military official said many of the meetings with Zubaidi were conducted by civil affairs officers who were seeking to engage a wide spectrum of Iraqis in an effort to restore basic services during the initial chaotic days of the U.S. presence. The official insisted, however, that they were not endorsing his claim to be the mayor.
The initial backing of Zubaidi and his subsequent arrest suggests that various U.S. agencies, particularly the Pentagon, State Department and CIA, still have different views about what shape a new Iraqi government should take and which people should participate in the process of forming it.
Although Zubaidi is a member of the Iraqi National Congress, a coalition of onetime exiles opposed to Hussein and run by Ahmed Chalabi, INC officials said they did not support Zubaidi's claim to the mayor's post.
In recent days, U.S. troops have taken more aggressive steps to confront other Iraqis who have attempted to seize power in the postwar leadership vacuum. On Friday, Marines threatened to use force to evict a former Shiite preacher who had been holed up in the mayor's office in Kut, a city about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. The man, who claimed he was the mayor there, responded by slipping out the back door.
Many Baghdad residents had assumed Zubaidi had been appointed by the U.S. military. He drove around in a white four-wheel drive vehicle with a sign taped to the back window that read: "Executive Council of Baghdad." He had set up committees charged with restoring public services and had urged thousands of government workers to fill out forms to reclaim their old jobs.
"We will take care of everything," he said in a meeting last week.
But Zubaidi's actions galled U.S. officials here, who contended he had sent letters to people telling them not to go back to work at utility plants and banks unless he had given his approval.
His arrest illustrates the murky rules governing Iraqis who seek to fill leadership roles on their own in the postwar environment. While the United States would like to see Iraqis assume positions of responsibility, it wants to be able to vet those who ultimately receive senior government jobs.
After news of Zubaidi's arrest was broadcast on a U.S.-run radio station here, supporters at his headquarters at the Wiyah Club held a series of frantic meetings aimed at organizing large demonstrations in the city on Monday.
Ahmed Abdelbakr, one of Zubaidi's spokesmen, said his boss was simply trying to "fill a void."
"The Americans were late" in providing assistance, he said. "We needed somebody to help the city."
American authorities promised that assistance was on the way. U.S. Treasury officials working as advisers to Iraq's financial sector said they began distributing $20 emergency payments to municipal employees returning to their jobs today, and they said they expected to expand the program throughout the capital and in the country's northern provinces this week.
The $20 payment program was launched in southern Iraq last week, but it ran into problems when U.S. officials struggled to verify that those seeking the handout had worked at the institutions to which they said they were returning.
After getting the $20 payments, the returning government workers will begin to receive their regular monthly salaries, paid in part by $1.4 billion in available Iraqi assets that have been frozen in U.S. banks. The salaries will be paid in dollars, according to U.S. officials.
Staff writer Monte Reel contributed to this report.