A former Iraqi exile who claims to be Baghdad's governor insisted today that he would continue acting in that role despite some U.S. officials' refusal to recognize his authority. But he also said he was "fully ready to cooperate" with the U.S. diplomat who has been appointed administrator of the Iraqi capital.
The statements by Mohammed Mohsen Zubaidi, who has been acting as Baghdad's top official, appeared designed to defuse tensions that arose when the Pentagon's designated administrator, Barbara Bodine, said the United States did not recognize Zubaidi's authority because he was not chosen in a U.S.-sanctioned process.
Zubaidi, a Shiite Muslim dissident who has spent the past 24 years in exile, has been acting as mayor for about a week, holding meetings with community leaders, visiting public buildings and issuing proclamations. Today he spoke with senior officials of the city's utility, health and education sectors between talking to journalists and shuttling between two neighboring hotels in downtown Baghdad.
Zubaidi said in a brief interview that he found Bodine's comment strange because he often speaks with U.S. military officials. "I meet regularly with the Army and the Marines -- almost every day," he said.
Bodine, an officer of the Defense Department's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance under retired Lt. Gen. Jay M. Garner, is a career diplomat, having served as a political officer in Baghdad two decades ago and recently as ambassador to Yemen. U.S. military officials would not comment on Zubaidi's interactions with military commanders, but reporters have observed him regularly walking into a section of the Palestine Hotel that had been inhabited by U.S. Marine officers.
His statement about contacts with the U.S. military suggested that some elements of the U.S. government outside the Pentagon reconstruction office may have supported Zubaidi, a wealthy businessman who has doled out generators, medicine and other emoluments to tribal leaders and local officials. He claimed to have been selected by a 22-member council comprising professors, clerics and other community leaders.
Although Zubaidi said he was involved with the Iraqi National Congress, an adviser to the group said Zubaidi "was acting without orders" when he claimed to be the governor just a few days after U.S. troops rolled into the city. "He was off the reservation," said Zaab Sethna, an adviser to the group's leader, Ahmed Chalabi.
Sethna said Zubaidi was an intelligence operative who provided valuable information but was not tapped by the group, which has close links to the Pentagon, to become the capital's governor. He said Zubaidi meets regularly with four American advisers who do not appear to be members of the U.S. military.
Zubaidi said he has no U.S. advisers and his only contacts with the U.S. government are through military officers in Baghdad. "I am an independent man," he said.
Garner, the retired three-star general named by President Bush to direct the reconstruction of Iraq, traveled to northern Iraq today to meet Kurds in the northeastern swath of the country that was autonomous when Saddam Hussein was in power. Garner was greeted warmly by college students, teachers and Kurdish leaders on the second day of his four-day tour of the country. It was his first visit to the region since leading Operation Provide Comfort in 1991, which resettled millions of Kurds after an aborted uprising against Hussein.
Garner traveled from Baghdad, where he arrived on Monday, to Sulaymaniyah, about 200 miles northeast of the capital, where he was showered with flower petals by students at the city's university.
"What you have done here in the last 12 years is a wonderful start in self-government, and what you have done can serve as a model for the rest of Iraq," said Garner, who planned to travel to Najaf in southern Iraq on Wednesday to meet with Shiite leaders.
Garner met with Jalal Talabani, leader of the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan, and Massoud Barzani, head of the Kurdistan Democratic Party. The rival groups, which waged a civil war in 1996, have both welcomed U.S. efforts to integrate them into a new Iraqi federal state.
"Although we believe that the Kurdish people, like other people in the world, have the right to self-determination, at this moment we want to deal within the framework of Iraq," Talabani said.
In Baghdad, Zubaidi said he, too, hoped to talk with Garner. "We are ready to meet with Mr. Garner and his team, particularly the lady, Barbara," he said. "We are ready to fully cooperate."
Despite the Pentagon's stance, several Iraqis who have met with Zubaidi said they supported his efforts to coordinate reconstruction projects in the city. "It's a very good idea," said Mumtaz Ayoub, a director of Baghdad's electricity commission. "We need someone like him. We don't care what the Americans think."
Meanwhile, a spokesman for the U.S. Central Command, Brig. Gen. Vincent K. Brooks, said U.S. forces discovered more than 800 suicide bomb vests that were intended for use by Hussein loyalists.
"We remain concerned about the potential for suicide attacks," he said. "We know there's someone that produces then distributes [the vests] -- and intended at least to use the ones we found."
Brooks also said soldiers unearthed a stash of more than $600 million in U.S. $100 bills hidden in the storage room of a Baghdad residence that may have belonged to Hussein's ruling Baath Party.
Staff writer Monte Reel contributed to this report.