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Iraqi Shiites Celebrate Religious Freedoms Amid Anti-American Sentiments - 2003-04-22

Hundreds of thousands of Iraqi Shiites, some chanting anti-American slogans, are taking part in a pilgrimage to the holy city of Karbala, something forbidden for decades under the rule of Saddam Hussein.

With a mosque sounding the call to prayer, more than a million Shiite Muslims are expected to make the religious pilgrimage to Karbala, site of the 7th century martyrdom of a grandson of the prophet Mohammad. Long suppressed by Saddam Hussein's ruling Sunni sect, Shiites make up the majority of Iraq's population and some are taking part in this new found freedom for the first time.

"I feel very happy now," said a pilgrim. "I have tasted freedom today. It is very sweet."

Some Shiites though, are also using the event to demand a quick withdrawal of U.S. military forces and the mass pilgrimage included people carrying anti-American signs and telling reporters they want a country free of outsiders.

"I want Islamic leaders, our Islamic leaders," said another pilgrim. "We want just Iraqis, not Americans, like Jay Garner or another leader."

But Jay Garner, the retired American General charged with overseeing Iraq's reconstruction, received a warm welcome on a trip to Northern Iraq. It was his first visit there since running a military operation in the north to protect the region's minority Kurds at the end of the first Gulf War, when Saddam Hussein crushed a Kurdish rebellion.

Mr. Garner met with Kurdish leaders and declared Iraq now stands at a historic crossroads.

"We have together this small moment of time to begin a process of democratic government throughout Iraq that will take the wonders of Iraq and the wealth of Iraq and give it to the Iraqi people," said Mr. Garner.

In another development, more wanted members of Saddam Hussein's ousted government were captured by U.S. forces.

"Over the last two days, coalition forces have taken two of the top 55 regime leaders into custody," announced General Vincent Brooks at U.S. Central Command in Qatar. "The first is Jamal Mustafa Abdullah Sultan al-Tikriti, who is the deputy chief of [the] tribal affairs office and who we believe may have insights into the regime's inner circle. The second is Muhammad Hamza al-Zubaydi, a Baath party commander, a former deputy prime minister and a key regime player with insights into regime decisions."

In Washington, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer is rejecting calls that U.N. weapons inspectors return to Iraq to search for banned weapons of mass destruction before more than a decade of U.N. sanctions can be lifted.

"Make no mistake about it, the United States and the coalition have taken on the responsibility of dismantling Iraq's WMD," he said.

France is now proposing an immediate suspension of civilian sanctions. But Russia's U.N. ambassador Sergei Lavov raised the possibility that they can not be ended entirely until the United Nations, and not U.S. troops, determine that Iraq is free of banned weapons.

"The only way to verify it is to have inspectors in Iraq and to see for themselves and to report back to the Security Council," Ambassador Lavov said. "As soon as they deliver the report, the sanctions could be lifted."

While U.S. troops have not found banned weapons materials in Iraq, Chief U.N. weapons inspector Hans Blix says weapons inspectors are ready to return to ensure the country's disarmament.