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New Iraqi Assembly Meets, Some Hostages Freed - 2004-09-01


Iraq's newly appointed National Council met for the first time Wednesday, as mortars were fired at the compound where the ceremony was held. Iraqi militants released seven hostages. Two French reporters are still held by militants who threaten to execute them.

Minister of State Kassam Daoud read a statement from Prime Minister Iyad Allawi listing the goals of the new government, including the need to establish the rule of law and prevent insurgents from derailing the transition to democracy.

The swearing-in ceremony continued despite at least half a dozen mortars fired at the building.

The National Council will help set the framework for elections early next year to create a permanent government. The 100 members of the council were selected by a national conference that convened last month in Baghdad.

Former Iraqi Governing Council member Ahmad Chalabi says gunmen ambushed his convoy as he was heading to Baghdad from Najaf to attend the swearing-in ceremony. "The terrorists opened fire on the vehicles but the fire was returned. We had two guards wounded," he said.

Mr. Chalabi says an Iraqi court could drop its counterfeiting case against him. A decision is expected by Friday.

Once a close U.S. ally, Mr. Chalabi is also suspected of providing faulty intelligence on Iraq's weapons of mass destruction that was used to help justify the U.S. war against Saddam Hussein.

In other news, Iraqi militants freed seven truck drivers abducted in July. Their kidnappers had threatened to kill the Kenyan, Indian and Egyptian workers if the Kuwaiti company they worked for did not pull out of Iraq. The transport company agreed to the demand and also paid a $500,000 ransom.

But another militant group still holds two French journalists and threatens to kill them if France does not repeal a ban on Muslim headscarves in public schools.

A delegation of French Muslim leaders says they will travel to Iraq to offer their help to other diplomatic efforts under way to secure the release of the two French nationals.

French Defense Minister Michele Alliot-Marie says the multiple efforts underline the unified response of French society, both Muslim and non-Muslim, to the crisis.

Pope John Paul II also added his voice to those calling for the French journalists to be released.

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