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As city officials from around the world swap ideas on how to improve urban life, a gap is becoming clear between those who have the power to make change happen and those who don't.

When American and Latin American municipal leaders leave the U.N. conference on cities, they can decide which ideas to put into action. But in parts of Europe and much of Africa, local officials can't make decisions or spend money without approval from the national government.The power struggle is one of the most important issues at the conference, because it will ultimately determine who is responsible for making the world's cities more livable in the 21st century.

"I think that the message from this conference should be that decentralization can complement the work of the national government," said Baltimore Mayor Kurt Schmoke.

"It shouldn't be seen as being in conflict, because implementing things like housing policy are probably best done at the local level. Establishing the policy is something the national government can do," Schmoke said.

The 12-day U.N. conference on cities has given municipal authorities a voice in the same forums as national government leaders for the first time. Many have tapped colleagues, urban experts, business executives and grassroots activists for new answers to old problems.

But for some leaders, the fresh ideas probably won't go very far.

Florence Dillsworth, the mayor of Freetown, Sierra Leone, said because of centralized power she has no resources to feed or house hundreds of thousands of civilians who fled to the capital during the country's civil war.

She urged the conference to pressure Sierra Leone's leaders to loosen the reins "so that local government can be empowered to give real service to . . . the ordinary people."

Schmoke said colleagues in Germany, the Netherlands and Kenya also want more power at the local level and viewed decentralization as "a major political issue."

Durban, in South Africa, has another problem. South Africa's new constitution emphasizes decentralization, so cities have the power. What they don't have is the money.

But with advice from other municipal authorities, city officials are developing plans to protect Durban's environment and better manage their resources.

Although the majority of Durban residents live in squatter camps and political violence is common, municipal officials feel the city has to clean up its air and water and preserve its potential tourist sites.

"If you look at a city like Durban with our large, informal settlements, we don't stand a hope of actually getting piped water to the majority of these people," said Debra Roberts, the city's environmental manager. But at least by cleaning up the water, people can lead healthier lives, she said.

"Unless you start using resources in a better way, you're never going to solve the immense problems," said Roberts.

Meanwhile, some 150 people who'd barely begun their anti-government and workers' rights protests were arrested Saturday, along with 100 others who were still en route to the rally site.

Turkish activists have increased efforts to raise a host of issues while 15,000 foreigners are in Istanbul for a 12-day U.N. conference on cities. One delegate to the conference and three local journalists filming the crackdown also were briefly detained.

About 100 members of the Confederation of Civil Servants' Unions were met by five times as many police officers at a main shopping street where the pre-announced rally was to be held. Chants of "We Want Our Labor Rights!" and the arrests began almost simultaneously.