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UNITED NATIONS (AP) -- Iraq's U.N. envoy, who for months vigorously defended Saddam Hussein's regime, left New York on Friday for the Middle East, saying he hopes U.S. forces will leave Iraq soon and that there would be free elections in his country.
"I will see you, I hope, in a peaceful time with a good friendship between Iraq and the United States," Ambassador Mohammed Al-Douri said as he left to take a flight to Paris for the Syrian capital, Damascus.
Al-Douri said his priority was to locate his family in Iraq, whom he had not heard from since the U.S.-led invasion began March 20.
"I hope the U.S. Army will leave Iraq soon and we will have free elections, free government and free future for the people of Iraq," he said.
Al-Douri, the first Iraqi official to concede defeat, took a stronger tone in an interview with the Dubai-based Al-Arabiya satellite channel.
"I am leaving because I don't think there is a possibility for me to work as I want from a country that is militarily invading Iraq, destroying, ravaging and killing," he said. "I don't think that this occupied country (Iraq) will allow me to work with full freedom at the United Nations. Because I fear pressure to which I might be subjected, I have chosen to quit with honor and dignity."
Arab diplomats said Al-Douri was not resigning and Iraq's U.N. Mission will remain open. The current third-ranking diplomat, Said Shihab Ahmad, will become the charge d'affaires, the diplomats said on condition of anonymity.
Al-Douri vehemently defended his country for months as the United States and its allies sought U.N. backing for war on Iraq.
He insisted that Iraq had no weapons of mass destruction and was cooperating with U.N. weapons inspectors.
Two weeks ago, during a heated debate, Al-Douri accused the United States of "criminal aggression" against Iraq and warned the U.S.-led coalition was "about to start a real war of extermination that will kill everything and destroy everything."
The outburst caused U.S. Ambassador John Negroponte to walk out of the open Security Council meeting, saying he'd "heard enough."
With the fall of Baghdad on Wednesday, however, Al-Douri declared "the game is over." He said he had no "relationship with Saddam" and had not been in communication with the government for a long time.
British Ambassador Jeremy Greenstock, whose country's troops are fighting alongside American forces, praised Al-Douri's statement, saying, "I pay tribute to him acknowledging it."
Al-Douri taught international law at Baghdad University for more than 30 years before becoming a diplomat in 1999, first at the United Nations in Geneva and since early 2001 at U.N. headquarters in New York.
On Friday, he left the U.N. building after a final round of good-byes and a farewell lunch in the Delegate's Dining Room. He was escorted to the door by half a dozen Arab diplomats.
When asked his future plans, he smiled and said "I'm practically retired now."
The 60-year-old ambassador said he still loves teaching.
"That's my life, and I would like to maybe go back to it."
(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)