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U.S. warns Iraqis grabbing power

Coalition is only authority for now, general says

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BAGHDAD, Iraq — The U.S. military moved on Wednesday to strip Baghdad's self-appointed administrator of his authority and warned Iraqi factions not to take advantage of the confusion and the political void in the country by trying to grab power.

Lt. Gen. David McKiernan, the commander of ground forces in Iraq, issued a proclamation putting Iraq's politicians on notice, saying: "The coalition alone retains absolute authority within Iraq." He warned that anyone challenging the American-led authority would be subject to arrest.

However, the American military presence is sparse in several areas of the city. With nobody to stop them, long-banned groups ranging from Shiite radicals to communists have been seizing villas in Baghdad and adorning them with their respective emblems.

Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general who will lead reconstruction efforts, just arrived in Baghdad on Monday and has been traveling in the north these past two days. McKiernan and his force are supposed to provide the security to enable rebuilding.

Garner, traveling in the Kurdish-held northern region of Iraq, said on Wednesday that anti-American sentiment would soon subside.

"The majority of people realize we are only going to stay here long enough to start a democratic government for them," he said. "We're only going to stay here long enough to get their economy going." Once that was grasped, Garner added, "In a very short order you'll see a change in the attitudes and the will of the people themselves."

The toppling of Saddam two weeks ago has created a power vacuum that political factions and religious clerics were rushing to fill. American troops, meanwhile, are still being killed and injured as they try to make Iraq a safer place.

Three American Marines died on Wednesday in an accident involving a rocket-propelled grenade near the city of Kut, about 100 miles southeast of Baghdad. Earlier this week, an army soldier was killed south of Baghdad when he fell from a truck. "That's the big problem we're going to face now, accidents," a Marine captain said.

But outside the military sphere, large political problems loomed. Among those engaged in the rush for power were two longtime Iraqi exiles. American concern over the activities of these two men — Muhammad Mohsen al-Zubaidi and Ahmad Chalabi — has begun to grow, military officials said.

Al-Zubaidi, who recently returned to Iraq, asserts that he was chosen to lead an executive council charged with administering Baghdad. He has reportedly sought to appoint a police chief, ignoring the police official installed by the Army's 3rd Infantry Division, and his supporters have appropriated government vehicles.

Al-Zubaidi, who says his qualifications for running Baghdad include participation in a disaster control management course arranged by the State Department, has also proposed sending a delegation to represent Iraq's interest at an OPEC meeting.

American officials said on Wednesday that it was al-Zubaidi efforts to expand his powers that prompted the Americans to crack down.

Al-Zubaidi was given a copy of McKiernan's proclamation, American officials said, and he was informed by the American military on Wednesday that he had no authority to appoint anybody.

He was asked to vacate his office at the Palestine Hotel and told to return any property seized by his men. American troops have been stationed near the hotel to provide a measure of security for the reporters who are staying there. The concern was that al-Zubaidi would portray the deployments as indications that the American military was actually there to protect him and to support his political aspirations.

Al-Zubaidi has been meeting with traditional sheiks, with tribal chieftains in gold-embroidered robes and headdresses and with men in business suits. His entourage now includes police and army officers in their old uniforms, the shoulder boards spattered with stars and eagles.

Al-Zubaidi has been meeting with traditional sheiks, with tribal chieftains in gold-embroidered robes and headdresses and with men in business suits. His entourage now includes police and army officers in their old uniforms, the shoulder boards spattered with stars and eagles.

On Wednesday, he held a meeting to hear neighborhood grievances, which, as gatherings here do, quickly turned into a cacophony of shouted grievances about lost relatives under Saddam, seized property since his fall, a lack of security and the loss of electricity. "I don't have a magic wand," Al-Zubaidi said at several points.

Then he was surrounded by aides and flanked by a Sunni tribal sheik and a Shiite clergyman whose black turban marked him as a descendent of the Prophet Mohammed.

The entourage jumped in and out of a caravan of cars and pickup trucks, stopping at a fire station, a water purification plant and a hospital. It also visited the newly seized headquarters of the Kurdish Democratic Party, headed by the Barzani clan, as well as the Assyrian Democratic Movement, equipped with a purple flag and militiamen in camouflage.

Such is Iraq today: a mesmerizing labyrinth of conflicting interests operating in something close to a void as American generals strive to maintain a minimum of order and a retired American general speaks of building a stable, democratic future.

The American military is also keeping a close eye on the activities of Chalabi, the leader of the Iraqi National Congress, who has ensconced himself in a club in Baghdad and is seeking to play an important role in Iraq's effort to restore civil authority.

Chalabi has enjoyed strong support from Defense Department officials, who say he is committed to democracy in Iraq, a pro-Western foreign policy and the Middle East peace process.

Chalabi's role could be important as Iraqi political figures meet over the next several weeks to discuss arrangements for a temporary administration as a stepping stone to a democratic government. Some Bush administration officials, however, have been skeptical that Chalabi, who spent the past few decades in exile, would attract much of a following in iraq. And allied military officials have been concerned that Chalabi's men are throwing their weight around to build a political base for their leader.

Chalabi has about 700 fighters in his entourage who were flown to the Iraqi air base at Tallil several weeks ago by the American military at the request of Pentagon officials. American forces then scoured the country for arms and ammunition to equip the fighters so that they could participate in the campaign to oust Saddam.

American military lawyers ruled that the weapons could be provided to Chalabi's men without congressional approval because they were not intended for a foreign government but for a fighting force attached to the American military. Special Forces were assigned to supervise the fighters, who were officially called the Free Iraqi Freedom Fighters.

But the fighting drew to a close before the fighters could join the fray. After American forces took Baghdad, some of Chalabi's fighters helped capture an aide to Saddam who was on the allies' most wanted list. But American officials are also worried that some are being reorganized as a private security force for Chalabi, and they suspect them of setting up their own checkpoints and even detaining Iraqis.

Just a few weeks after helping establish Chalabi's force, allied commanders are now considering a plan either to demobilize the force or put them formally under allied command, officials said.

Maj. Gen. Albert Whitley, the senior British officer in McKiernan's command, put McKiernan's edict into effort at a meeting on Wednesday with railway representatives.

The allies are trying to restore Iraq's basic services, and its railroad is one of them. The allies are trying to repair track and ensure that workers' salaries are paid. The aim is to use the railroad to move fuel to power plants and to move food north from the port of Umm Qasr.

As Whitley opened the meeting at the central railway station in Baghdad, he was told by his Iraqi counterparts that Chalabi's representatives had been in touch with them and had been taking credit for restoring the railroad.

Such claims follow a pattern, allied officials say, in which supporters of Al-Zubaidi and Chalabi have sought to claim credit for allied efforts to rebuild the country in order to build political support.

"Nobody has authority unless General McKiernan says so," Whitley advised. "Mr. Zubaidi and Mr. Chalabi have no authority. If we say you run the railroad, you run the railroad. If anybody comes and tells you differently, tell us. We will ask them to stop interfering. If we have to, we will arrest them."

But after Whitley left, a vehicle appeared and aides to Chalabi got out, one witness said. They urged the railroad representatives to work with Chalabi, according to Thaibit Gharib, the director of the railroad.