Iraq's American administrator said Thursday he hopes to get government ministries up and running by late next week, and if necessary "we'll buy the furniture" for them in this looted and burned-out capital.
Jay Garner (search) said little, however, in his first Baghdad news conference about the potentially explosive issue of naming a top political leadership for Iraq. In a possible sign of trouble, an important Shiite Muslim cleric said that sect's highest authority would refuse to meet with the Americans.
U.S. troops, meanwhile, made a new catch in their pursuit of the top figures in Saddam Hussein (search)'s toppled regime. Tariq Aziz (search), the former deputy prime minister and one of the most visible members in the leadership, was in custody, U.S. Central Command announced Thursday.
Aziz's capture meant 12 of the 55 most wanted members of the regime were now in custody, and Sen. Bob Graham, former chairman of the Senate Intelligence Committee, said Thursday night the arrest of another top Iraq official, in Syria, would be announced shortly.
In Baghdad's streets, people pressed on with their daily struggle to restore some normalcy to life two weeks after the U.S.-British invasion force ousted Saddam, took control of Iraq and set off a rampage of looting and arson by Iraqis.
Electricity, knocked out during U.S. bombing in early April, was only slowly being restored. Supplies of clean pumped water, dependent on electric power, remained largely cut off. Almost all shops remained closed. In a still mostly lawless city, looters picked at buildings not yet emptied of fixtures and merchandise.
"We need security, we need peace, we need law," a writer and retired English teacher, Youarash Haidou, told Garner at a "town hall meeting" that started the retired general's day in Baghdad, after he spent two days touring northern Iraq.
The "town hall meeting," staged in a giant conference hall behind the security of U.S. tanks and combat troops, was attended by no more than 60 university professors and government bureaucrats, all men, chosen in some undisclosed manner.
"My superior came to us last night and said we were required to attend," one academic confided to a reporter.
The process has been similarly murky for moving Iraq toward an "interim authority," a provisional government led by a new president that would prepare the way for democratic elections two years or more in the future, in a country divided between Sunni and Shiite, Kurd and Arab.
In Washington, Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld told The Associated Press that the "beginning of an interim authority" would come soon, though he added, "I don't know quite what `soon' means."
But he said the United States will not allow a religious government, like Iran's, to take hold in Iraq, as some Shiites demand.
"If you're suggesting, how would we feel about an Iranian-type government with a few clerics running everything in the country, the answer is: That isn't going to happen," he said.
A first "all-factions" meeting April 15 in southern Iraq, sponsored by Garner, was attended by 80 representatives but boycotted by some invited groups opposed to the U.S. military administration. Some believe Washington will force a president on Iraq -- Ahmad Chalabi, a longtime exile little known in Iraq who was supported by U.S. government funds in building an opposition movement.
A second meeting will be held in the coming days in the Baghdad area, Garner's spokesman Nathan Jones said.
Behind the scenes, prominent Iraqis converged on Baghdad for long lunches and quiet talks, jockeying for position in what may be a weeks-long series of U.S.-sponsored sessions to select a national leadership.
"Meetings are going on all over the city," al-Shabbut said. After decades of rigid one-party rule, "people are getting to know each other."
Many in Iraq's Shiite majority, though long suppressed under Saddam, have voiced opposition to the U.S. military presence. In an interview with The Associated Press on Thursday, a leading Baghdad Shiite cleric said his religious institution would not countenance meetings with Garner.
"We don't put our hand in the hand of the foreigners. People should rule themselves by themselves. The Americans should leave our country peacefully," said Sayyed Ali al-Kathimi al-Waethi.
Garner didn't discuss the political process in his news conference, focusing instead on getting a government operating.
He said he told participants in the morning meeting that he hoped to have ministries working within days. "By the end of next week," he told reporters, "the governmental process will have Iraqi faces on it." The Americans are encouraging civil servants to report for work.
Reminded that many government buildings were bombed, or subsequently looted and burned, Garner said that if necessary, "we'll find the facilities. ... We'll buy the furniture."
Garner, 65, flew into Iraq last Monday to take up his duties as director of the Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, arriving with about 20 top aides, including his British deputy, Maj. Gen. Tim Cross. His staff is to grow to about 450 in the coming days.