White House warns Iran on Iraq
Four U.S. soldiers accused of stealing Baghdad cash
WASHINGTON (CNN) -- The Bush administration has warned the Iranian government to stay out of Iraq and not interfere with the country in its "road to democracy," the White House said Wednesday.
While not explicitly confirming reports that Iranian agents were making their way into Iraq, White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said, "We have concerns about this matter.
"We have well-known channels of communication with Iran, and we have made clear to Iran that we oppose the outside interference in Iraq's road to democracy. ... Infiltration of agents to destabilize the Shiite population would clearly fall into that category."
A Pentagon official Wednesday told CNN that intelligence reports received in the past few days indicate an unknown number of Iranian-backed agents have moved into southern Iraq to promote Shiite and Iranian interests with the Shiite community there.
The reports indicate the Iranians are operating around Najaf, Karbala and Basra. Some of them may be members of the Badr Brigade, a Shiite militia group based in Iran, this official said.
A majority of Iraq's population are Shiite Muslims, and thousands have attended rallies calling for the creation of an Islamic state in Iraq and demanding that U.S-led coalition forces leave.
Fleischer would not say at what level or through what means the message was communicated to Iran. The United States and Iran do not have diplomatic relations.
Meanwhile, U.S. authorities filed the first criminal charges related to the looting of Iraqi antiquities after the fall of Saddam Hussein's government.
Federal prosecutors said Benjamin James Johnson, 27 -- who was in Iraq as an engineer for Fox News Channel -- was charged in a criminal complaint with smuggling 12 Iraqi paintings and 40 Iraqi bonds into the United States. Customs agents impounded the articles at Dulles International Airport near Washington, D.C.
The complaint says Johnson had accompanied the U.S. Army troops to the "New Presidential Palace," which Johnson told authorities was the former residence of Uday Hussein, one of Saddam's sons. (Full story)
Four U.S. soldiers are being held on allegations of stealing several hundred thousand dollars of illicit cash from the millions found by U.S. forces in the Baghdad bungalows of senior members of Saddam's regime, Pentagon sources told CNN Wednesday.
The soldiers were turned in by the junior leadership of the units after some of the U.S. forces noticed that several bundles of the U.S. currency were missing from the neatly packed cases, officials said.
The head of the coalition's ground forces told reporters Wednesday that the troops in Baghdad are "rapidly transitioning to focus on ... restoring basic services to Iraqis that are either at or better than prewar standards."
Lt. Gen. David McKiernan said that about 700 military police officers are being added to the ground force in Iraq. He said he did not expect the total number of coalition troops in Iraq to exceed 200,000.
McKiernan said he does not have enough soldiers and Marines to "guard every street corner, every facility. We try to focus forces on where our intelligence tells us to."
He said that coalition forces did not stop the looting in Baghdad and other major cities after Saddam's government fell because they were "killing bad guys and protecting Iraqi people."
Retired U.S. Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who heads the Pentagon's Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, is touring the country to assess its postwar needs, and he received a warm welcome in the Kurd-controlled north.
Kurdish children in colorful native outfits presented Garner, who will run Iraq until a new government is formed, with flowers at an airport ceremony, where he was greeted by Kurdistan Democratic Party leader Massoud Barzani and other officials. (Garner profile)
Asked about anti-American demonstrations in Baghdad, Garner said that will change because most Iraqis realize coalition troops will stay long enough to start a democratic government, kick-start the Iraqi economy and start oil revenue flowing again.
Once that happens, "I think what you will see here is a reversal of this," he said.
Garner had a similar take on reports of anti-American sentiment from among Muslims gathering in Karbala, in southern Iraq. Most Shiites, he said, "are very glad they are where they are right now.
"Two weeks ago they wouldn't have been able to demonstrate," he said. "We've just liberated Iraq. People are demonstrating, and that's the first part of freedom -- the right to disagree."
During a 10-minute visit to the Kurdish parliament in Erbil, Garner told the members he wants to discuss the economy and other problems when he comes back for a longer visit in about two weeks.
• U.S. authorities have captured four more former members of the Iraqi regime, including the Air Defense Force commander -- the highest-ranking official taken into custody so far, U.S. Central Command said Wednesday. (Full story)
• Three U.S. Marines were killed and seven injured when a rocket-propelled grenade launcher malfunctioned during a practice exercise, outside of Kut, U.S. Central Command said Wednesday. The Marines killed and injured in the incident, which occurred Tuesday night local time, were from the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, Central Command said. No other details of the incident were given. Central Command said an investigation is under way.
• British Defense Minister Geoff Hoon said Wednesday that he believed Saddam was probably alive and hiding in Iraq. "As each day goes by, as we continue to search those places he may be hiding, we have to keep an open mind, but it is still my best judgment," Hoon said during a visit to the Iraqi port city of Umm Qasr. (Full story)
• Huge crowds chanted and danced Wednesday in the streets of the holy city of Karbala for the final day of a pilgrimage long suppressed under Saddam's rule. (Gallery: Pilgrims at Karbala) Karbala is where Muslim martyr al-Hussein -- grandson of the prophet Muhammad -- was killed and entombed more than 1,300 years ago. Many pilgrims took part in a ritual self-flagellation, with some cutting their scalps with swords as they chanted. (Full story)
• Doctors who cannot find space in Iraqi hospitals are turning to neighborhood mosques, where they set up free clinics for examinations, medication and even minor surgery. One such clinic in Adamiya sees about 100 patients a day, mostly children diagnosed with chest infections and gastroenteritis due to the lack of clean water, doctors said.
CNN Correspondents Jane Arraf, Dana Bash, Tom Mintier, Karl Penhaul, Nic Robertson and Barbara Starr and Producers Terry Frieden and Dawn Tamir contributed to this report.
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