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BAGHDAD, Iraq (AP)-- The commander of U.S.-led coalition forces urged Saddam Hussein's loyalists Friday to lay down arms and "embrace the future" in a sovereign Iraq, saying they will otherwise end up either dead or in custody.
The U.S. military has reported considerable success in controlling the insurgency in central Iraq since Saddam's capture Dec. 13.
"We will be relentless in the pursuit of these targets," Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez said at a news conference.
But the violence continued as a roadside bomb blew up Friday in Baghdad, injuring two children. The explosion occurred after U.S. soldiers approached a suspicious device to inspect it, but no American casualties were reported.
Two bombs found in the Defense Ministry were also being defused by U.S. troops Friday, Lt. Robert Cornetius said. Patients were evacuated from part of a hospital facing the ministry, said the hospital's deputy manager, Imad Tareq.
The U.S.-plan for transferring power to a sovereign Iraqi government through an appointed legislature was in trouble because of vehement opposition from Iraq's foremost Shiite cleric, Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani, and his followers.
An aide to al-Sistani told Abu Dhabi television on Thursday that the cleric might issue a religious edict, or fatwa, declaring the U.S. plan illegitimate if his demand for direct elections are ignored.
The power transfer plan calls for a provisional legislature to be selected by 18 regional caucuses. The legislature would then choose a new, sovereign administration to take office by July 1.
The British Broadcasting Corp. reported that an associate of al-Sistani's, Ali Abdel Hakim Al-Safi, wrote a letter to President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair, questioning the sincerity of the transfer of power.
The letter rejected the coalition's argument that early elections were not feasible, saying this was simply a pretext to deny Iraqis their legitimate aspirations, the BBC said.
"Your plan for the transfer of powers is vague and too complicated. ... It is nothing other than replacing one dictatorship with another to serve your own re-election goals," it quoted al-Safi as saying.
The letter concludes by saying if Iraqis are not allowed to choose their institutions, the United States and Britain would be dragged into a losing battle, the BBC said. Dominic d'Angelo, a coalition spokesman in Basra, confirmed al-Safi sent a letter to Blair and Bush.
Also Thursday, an estimated 30,000 Shiite Muslims rallied in support of al-Sistani in Basra, Iraq's second-largest city, 340 miles southeast of Baghdad. It was the biggest protest yet against the power transfer plan.
Faced with al-Sistani's objections, U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer left Baghdad for Washington on Thursday for consultations with Bush and his senior national security advisers.
"If Bremer rejects the opinion of Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Sistani, then he will issue a fatwa to deprive the elected council of its legitimacy," Mohammed Baqir al-Mehri, al-Sistani's representative in Kuwait, told Abu Dhabi television.
Sanchez said daily attacks on U.S.-led coalition troops have fallen to about 15 a day, compared with a few dozen previously.
The military has captured or killed all but 13 of the 55 most wanted figures from Saddam's regime. Sanchez said 360 more anti-coalition guerrillas were captured in 150 operations this week.
"The former regime is never going to come back. We are focused. We are effective in the pursuit of these individuals. We are going to capture them or kill, as is our mission," Sanchez said.
"The timing is perfect for the anti-coalition forces and former regime elements to make a decision that it is time to embrace the future," Sanchez said. "Those (insurgents) that remain at large, and given the pace that we are moving toward sovereignty, it is time for them to lay down their arms."
The United States is pushing the provisional parliament plan because it says security is too poor and voter records too incomplete for fair elections.
Al-Sistani and other clerics want direct elections, fearing the caucuses may be rigged to keep Shiites out of power. He wields vast influence among Iraq's Shiites, believed to comprise about 60 percent of the country's 25 million people.
The Americans are wary of elections because of who might win. With Iraq in turmoil, Islamic radicals or Saddam's Baath Party might dominate a vote simply because they have the best organizations.
Bremer and members of the U.S.-appointed Iraqi Governing Council also were to attend a meeting in New York on Monday with U.N. Secretary-General Kofi Annan, which U.S. officials hope will help resolve the impasse with al-Sistani.
Annan has written to the Governing Council, saying that holding a credible election before June 30 may be impossible.
State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said the United States would do everything it could to hold to the deadline.
He also announced the U.S. ambassador to the Philippines, Francis Ricciardone, would set up an office in Washington to oversee Iraq's transition to self-government.
Adnan Pachachi, the Iraqi Governing Council president, cautioned Thursday that if the deadlock is not overcome, Iraq would end up under prolonged U.S. occupation.
"We have a chance to regain our sovereignty and our power in the next five months or so, or we can opt for postponement for two years" he said.
Also Thursday, a plane carrying Georgian Defense Minister David Tevzadze came under fire as it took off from Baghdad's airport to return to Georgia. No one was injured.
Tevzadze spent two days in Iraq with the former Soviet republic's 70-member peacekeeping contingent.
In Tokyo, an advance team of Japanese soldiers began their journey to Iraq on Friday after a ceremony marking the beginning of Japan's biggest and most dangerous overseas military mission since dangerous overseas military mission since World War II.
(Copyright 2004 by The Associated Press. All Rights Reserved.)