KUT, Iraq – A U.S. Marine commander called tribal leaders together Saturday to seek their support in running their city but emphasized that he considers himself to be in charge. Patrols of low-flying attack helicopters drove home the point.
Kut, about 45 miles west of the Iranian border, has been of particular concern to U.S. officials since a Shiite Muslim cleric occupied city hall and claimed to control the city. They contend he is backed by Iran and has only minority support.
U.S. officers had said they planned to force cleric Said Abbas out of City Hall, which has been surrounded by his followers, to deprive him of symbolic standing in the community. Now, the strategy seems to be to ignore and marginalize him. At Saturday's meeting, he was not at the main table but sat toward the rear of the room.
The city of 380,000 has been relatively calm compared with the pandemonium that has greeted the regime's collapse in other cities.
So far, there has been relatively little looting here. Hospitals are still working, and trash is being collected -- even though the trash collectors aren't getting paid.
The meeting between Gen. Rich Natonski, commander of Task Force Tarawa, and several dozen city leaders took place at a hotel next to a Marine command post. It was held under heavy security and closed to journalists.
At the meeting, Natonski said "it may be some time before elections will be able to be held," according to the text of his prepared comments.
In the interim, Natonski said after the meeting, "the government of this province and this city is where I meet with this council."
Hundreds of Abbas supporters gathered at the end of the street running past the hotel, which was blocked off by concertina wire, armored vehicles and Marines with machine guns behind sandbag bunkers.
"Go home U.S.A.!" the crowd chanted, the first time Abbas' supporters have directly expressed anti-American feelings. Previously, their chants focused on denouncing Ahmad Chalabi, an Iraqi exile whom they believe Washington wants to install as Iraq's leader.
One man held a framed portrait of Ayatollah Ruhollah Khomeni, the late leader of Iran's Islamic revolution.
American concern about Kut has grown since the recent arrival of the deputy leader of the Iran-based Supreme Council of the Islamic Revolution of Iraq -- the largest Iraqi opposition group and one that opposes U.S. plans for a new government. Abbas is a member of the Supreme Council, and the arrival of one of its senior officials is seen as encouragement for his cause.
Other leaders at the meeting said they supported the U.S. military, and Marines who attended said no one inside had asked how soon the Americans would leave.
One leader, Mubarak Ali az-Zubaidy, offered to build a golden statue of President Bush to thank him for freeing the Iraqi people.
"The Americans had their say. They want democracy and they will do it," az-Zubaidy said.