BAGHDAD - Iraqis reacted with weary skepticism Tuesday to promises from President Bush of a peaceful and independent future.
Iraq's defense minister said he wanted U.S. troops out within the year, to be replaced by newly trained Iraqi forces.
In a televised address to assure increasingly doubtful American voters that his project in Iraq was on track, Bush said U.S. forces would stay on and even be reinforced to stabilize the country after a handover of formal power to an interim government on June 30 and Iraqi elections in the new year.
Shortly before Bush spoke, Washington asked the United Nations to endorse a plan that would give U.S. forces an open-ended mandate to stay in Iraq, renewable in a year.
But Iraqis, from the streets of Baghdad to the ranks of the U.S.-installed administration, made clear they wanted a final end to 14 irksome months of occupation as soon as possible.
"In terms of the timeline for the presence of multinational forces to help us establish security and stability, I think it will be a question of months rather than years," Iraqi Defense Minister Ali Allawi said in London. He said Iraqi forces would probably be ready to step in before the mandated year was up.
It is an ambitious timetable but echoes the feelings of many Iraqis.
"Bush is a scorpion. He is a liar. He is sneaky, making all kinds of promises when he just wants to control Iraq," said Ayman Haidar, a policeman on duty in Baghdad.
ABU GHRAIB TO GO
Welcomed by many Iraqis as liberators from Saddam Hussein, U.S. troops now face frustration among people tired of violence and economic hardship in one of the world's most oil-rich nations. Many are also furious at soldiers' abuse of prisoners.
Bush said he would demolish Saddam's former torture center at Abu Ghraib, outside Baghdad, which has become newly notorious as the site of humiliating torments inflicted by American troops on naked and terrified inmates and captured on camera.
Among protesters outside Abu Ghraib Tuesday, Hussein Omeer said: "The problem is not with the building but what goes on inside. We want them to change the rules, not pull down the building."
Bush said that violence, like the assassination of the head of the Iraqi Governing Council last week and a Shi'ite uprising, would likely get worse during the transition to Iraqi rule.
There are difficult days ahead and the way forward may sometimes appear chaotic," said Bush, whose sliding job approval ratings are raising questions about his re-election chances in November.
U.S. tanks were in action before dawn south of the capital Tuesday, battling Shi'ite Mehdi Army fighters around the town of Kufa. At least 11 people were killed and 22 wounded, hospital staff in Kufa and the nearby holy city of Najaf said.
A doorway at the holiest Shi'ite Muslim shrine, Najaf's Imam Ali mosque, was slightly damaged by what appeared to be rockets or mortars.
Aides to radical Shi'ite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr said several people were hurt in the incident likely to upset believers across the Middle East. It was not clear which side fired the explosives.
FRANCE WANTS CHANGES
A soldier whose death Monday was announced Tuesday was at least the 580th American to die in combat since the invasion. A leader of Iraq's Turkmen minority was assassinated in a drive-by shooting in the northern city of Kirkuk, police said.
At least two people were wounded in Baghdad, police said, when a car blew up outside the Karma hotel, used by foreigners and near the embassy of Australia, a close U.S. ally in Iraq.
The draft U.N. resolution, distributed by the United States and Britain, is expected to be broadly adopted.
France and Russia, which opposed the war, want unspecified changes and said the transfer of power must be genuine. "It is a draft -- a draft which should be discussed and improved," French Foreign Minister Michel Barnier said Tuesday.
Germany, another war opponent, called Washington's plans "a good basis" for consensus. An Iraqi party headed by Ahmed Chalabi, a former U.S. favorite now openly hostile to Washington, said Tuesday the draft U.N. resolution did not give Iraqis enough.
U.N. envoy Lakhdar Brahimi was due to name a government in a week or so, representing Iraq's various communities.
A Washington Post-ABC poll Tuesday showed Bush's approval rating down four points in a month at 47 percent. Only four voters in 10 approved of his Iraq policy, the lowest ever, and 65 percent thought the United States was "bogged down" in Iraq.
© Copyright Reuters 2004