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Marines Hand Control of Baghdad to Army

Marines Hand Control of Baghdad to Army

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(AP) U.S. Army forces took control of Baghdad from the Marines on Sunday in a changing of the guard that thinned the military presence in the capital. Celebrating Easter, a longtime Iraqi bishop pleaded for safeguards against the persecution of Christians in the new Iraq.

The search for postwar order in Iraq was reinforced by signs that Syria might help ease regional tensions.

In Texas, flanked by two stoic helicopter crewmen home safe from Iraqi captivity, President Bush said Syria appears to be heeding warnings to avoid becoming a safe haven for Saddam loyalists or a destabilizing influence across the border in Iraq.

"They're getting the message," Bush said.

The president attended Easter service at the Ford Hood Army base, where nearly half the fort's 42,000 soldiers are deployed to the Iraq region. Afterward, he said he expected Syria to turn over any Iraqis sought by the United States.

Joining him were Chief Warrant Officer David S. Williams, 30, of Orlando, Fla., and Chief Warrant Officer Ronald D. Young Jr., 26, of Lithia Springs, Ga., two of the seven former POWs brought home a week after their Iraqi captors let them go.

In London, members of the pro-U.S. Iraqi National Congress said Saddam Hussein's son-in-law, Jamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti, surrendered to them in Baghdad after he was talked into leaving Syria by undisclosed means.

He is married to Saddam's youngest daughter, Hala, and was deputy head of the tribal affairs office in Saddam's ousted government. U.S. Central Command had no information on the reported surrender.

Two U.S. congressmen who met Syrian President Bashar Assad said he assured them he will not give asylum to any Iraqis wanted for war crimes.

Reps. Nick Rahall, D-W.Va., and Darrell Issa, R-Calif., were the first U.S. officials to meet Assad since tensions rose over Syria's alleged cooperation with the Saddam government during the war.

Across Iraq, Shiite pilgrims journeyed by the thousands to holy cities and Christians packed churches for Easter, giving full voice to religious convictions suppressed in the time of Saddam Hussein.

But there were fears, too, that religious rivalries that had been uneasily -- and sometimes brutally -- kept in check would flare anew and consume the new order.

Rev. Emmanuel Delly, retired after 40 years as Baghdad's Chaldean Catholic bishop, appealed for constitutional protections for Iraq's small Christian minority and said confiscated Christian property -- including 30 Baghdad schools -- must be returned.

"We can't meet Mr. Bush," he said in an interview. "But please tell Mr. Bush, `I am asking you in the name of all bishops to give us a good constitution."'

Saddam's government was officially secular but dominated by Sunni Muslims, who often put down Iraq's Shiite majority. Prospects of Shiites rising to power in a democratic Iraq have Christians and other minorities worried about a new era of persecution.

An estimated 700,000 Chaldean Catholics live in Iraq, about 5 percent of the population.

Some Muslim religious leaders in Iraq have already led demonstrations against the United States; Bush said that does not trouble him.

"I've always said democracy is going to be hard," he said. "It's not easy to go from being enslaved to being free. But it's going to happen, because the basic instincts of mankind is to be free."

The United States has not put a timetable on its occupation but suggested it will take at least six months to reach the next of several steps -- establishment of an interim government run by Iraqis.

Ahmad Chalabi, a pro-U.S. Iraqi opposition leader, said a U.S. military presence is necessary at least until the first democratic election is held. He estimated that is two years away.

Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of Senate Foreign Relations Committee, said it could take at least five years to create a functioning democracy.

"The institution-building process in Iraq is a huge endeavor," he said. "There's not much to work with at this point."

Chalabi also said Iraq's new constitution -- undoubtedly to be drawn up with U.S. influence -- must deter religious parties from trying to establish a permanent Islamic state.

"There is a role for Islamic religious parties, for they have some constituencies," he said. "But they are not going to be forcing any agenda or forcing a theocracy on the Iraqi people."

Marines who were based in east Baghdad moved to southern positions Sunday, leaving Army units to patrol the entire capital and the northern half of the country.

The shuffle reduces troop strength in the recovering capital, but officials did not say by how much.

Soldiers met community leaders in the capital to discuss security concerns and the U.S.-run Information Radio station announced an 11 p.m.-6 a.m. curfew.

"Anyone who violates this curfew will put himself in danger," one announcer said. Another advised people not to carry weapons "because you might be considered a threat to coalition forces."

Mohammed Mohsen al-Zubaidi, a deputy of Chalabi from the Iraqi National Congress, has proclaimed himself mayor of Baghdad, but it was unclear where his authority comes from or whether he has any. U.S. officials have not endorsed his claim.

At the Vatican, Iraq figured in Pope John Paul II's Easter message to the world -- he said the Iraqi people themselves, aided by other nations, should determine their country's future.

"Peace in Iraq!" proclaimed the pontiff, drawing cheers from a rain-soaked crowd in St. Peter's Square. "With the support of the international community, may the Iraqi people become the protagonists of their collective rebuilding of their country."

Shiites marched toward the holy Iraqi cities of Karbala and Najaf on an annual religious pilgrimage that was repressed for decades by Saddam.

As many as 2 million Shiites from Iraq, Iran and elsewhere are expected to converge on the two holy cities later in the week.

For Shiites in their 20s and 30s, it was their first time on the march. For older men like Hussein Saman, 48, imprisoned for 11 years for openly practicing Shiite rituals, it was his first pilgrimage since the 1970s.

"In the days of Saddam," he said, "if anyone did this march, he was killed."

(Copyright 2003 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)

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