Self-proclaimed Baghdad mayor prepares for office amid skepticism

By Carol Rosenberg, Jessica Guynn and Ken Moritsugu Knight Ridder Newspapers (KRT) BAGHDAD, Iraq _ Mohammed al Zubaidi smiled for the television cameras as supporters carried the self-proclaimed new mayor of Baghdad through a city plaza Sunday, but bystanders were far from impressed. Al Zubaidi, a former Iraqi exile, said last week that a local council elected him to lead the Iraqi capital. The U.S. military says it doesn’t recognize anyone as mayor yet. Al Zubaidi is a close associate of Iraqi National Congress head Ahmed Chalabi, a pro-American former exile who also has returned to Baghdad, with help from the Pentagon. “We don’t want a new regime with people we never heard of,” said Majid Ahmed, 37, an office employee who was outside the Palestine Hotel. “The Americans brought these people here for what? … I want someone liberal and democratic.” After 20 years of brutal dictatorship, there are few potential political leaders who are respected by ordinary Iraqis _ or even known to them. Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, the man charged with running Iraq until the Iraqis form their own government, was expected to arrive in Baghdad on Monday. His mission is to preside over a U.S. presence as long as is necessary to ensure a transition to a stable democratic government, and not one day longer, the White House has said. How long that might be was a subject of growing debate Sunday. One influential Bush adviser on Iraq said Sunday that the United States might be able to pull out of Iraq within “a matter of months,” but other experts predicted an American military presence of at least two years and quite possibly longer. Richard Perle, a member of the Bush administration’s Defense Policy Board, said the transition to Iraqi rule “could be short, a matter of months. I would hope it would be only a matter of months. “The sooner we can leave, the better, and we can leave as soon as there is an Iraqi government or even an interim Iraqi government in place,” he said on NBC’s “Meet the Press.” But Chalabi said on ABC’s “This Week” that U.S. troops need to stay until an election is held, which he said “should take two years.” Sen. Richard Lugar, R-Ind., chairman of the Senate Foreign Relations Committee, predicted the mission would take years. “That may understate it,” he said on “Meet the Press.” And former Secretary of State Henry Kissinger predicted that U.S. troops would stay more than two years, noting that troops have been in Bosnia for six years. “It will be necessary to establish a government and to help to protect that government against people who are trying to overthrow the system that is emerging,” Kissinger said on CNN’s “Late Edition.” Iraqi religious and political leaders launched talks on a new government last week, but satisfying the demands of competing religious and ethnic groups and a secular middle class won’t be easy, said Daniel Goure, a military analyst and vice president of the Lexington Institute, a think tank. The Pentagon hopes to turn over control of Iraq to an interim government in 120 days, according to one defense official, but Goure called that overly optimistic. “Look at what we experienced in the Balkans, and we didn’t have a lot of the problems we are facing now,” he said. Troops will be needed to stabilize Iraq and to hedge against the possibility of military action against Iran or Syria, said John Pike, military analyst with, a research group in Washington, D.C. “The notion that we might have 100,000 troops celebrating Thanksgiving in Iraq is very easy to believe,” he said.