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Iraqis take step toward interim government

Bush vows coalition will 'defeat the dictator's legacy'

Material from these and other 55-gallon drums is being tested for suspected chemical agents.
Material from these and other 55-gallon drums is being tested for suspected chemical agents.

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• Interactive: Who's who in Iraq
• Interactive: Sectarian divide

BAGHDAD, Iraq (CNN) -- As President Bush prepares to declare the combat phase of the Iraq war over, a group of disparate Iraqi factions took a critical step Monday toward building a new political structure.

The several hundred delegates, including Shiites, Sunnis, Arab tribal chiefs, urban professionals and numerous exiles attending the U.S.-led meeting in Baghdad agreed to reconvene within a month and select a transitional government.

Many made clear their desire for U.S. troops to ensure that Iraq is run by Iraqis, not by a U.S. puppet government.

In Michigan, Bush vowed that the United States will help Iraqis create a democratic society.

"America has no intention of imposing our form of government or our culture," he told Iraqi-Americans. "Yet we will ensure that all Iraqis have a voice in the new government and all citizens have their rights protected."

With Saddam Hussein out of power, Bush promised to help "defeat the dictator's legacy" -- though he warned "the work of building a new Iraq will take time."

Thursday, President Bush will give a speech aboard the USS Abraham Lincoln, which is returning from the Persian Gulf. White House officials say he will announce that the combat phase of the Iraq war is over. (Full story)

The various political, ethnic and religious groups at the Baghdad meeting agreed on the immediate need for critical services to be restored and for more security throughout the country.

Retired U.S. Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, overseeing the initial reconstruction efforts, assured the crowd that his first goals are to provide security and services, and to build jobs.

An official with the U.S.-led Office of Reconstruction and Humanitarian Assistance, which organized Monday's conference, said about 300 people took part.

"The reason I'm here," Garner told the crowd, "is to create an environment in Iraq which will give us a process to start a democratic government ... that represents the freely elected will of the people." (Full story)

U.S. officials: Aziz says he saw Saddam alive

The meeting, under heavy security, took place on Saddam's 66th birthday. Coalition officials do not know whether the former Iraqi leader is alive. (Iraqis mark Saddam birthday)

U.S. officials said Monday that Tariq Aziz, Saddam's former deputy prime minister who is now in U.S. custody, told interrogators he saw Saddam after the initial airstrike of the war, which was intended to kill him. Aziz said he did not see Saddam after the second attempted "decapitation strike" in April, the officials told CNN.

Aziz also said Iraq destroyed stocks of weapons of mass destruction as U.S. troops were arriving in the region, senior military officials said.

However, U.S. officials say it is not clear whether Aziz is telling the truth or whether he would know such information.

Suspected chemical weapons material in northern Iraq was undergoing further analysis Monday after previous tests gave conflicting results.

Samples have been taken for testing in the United States and in Iraq, said 1st Lt. Valerie Phipps of the 1st Squadron, 10th Cavalry Regiment.

Two earlier sets of tests conducted at the scene indicated chemical weapons were present; a third was negative.

Initial tests indicated the deadly nerve agent cyclosarin and an unspecified blister agent in a stash of 55-gallon drums, about 130 miles [208 kilometers] north of Baghdad. (Full story)

A test conducted by another team, however, turned up negative for chemical weapons and suggested the liquid might be rocket fuel.

Disarming Iraq of suspected chemical, nuclear and biological weapons was one of the United States-led coalition's reasons for invading Iraq. No such weapons have been identified.

British Prime Minister Tony Blair dismissed the inability of coalition troops to find biological, chemical or nuclear weapons in Iraq.

"I remain confident they will be found," he told reporters Monday. (Full story)

But the man considered the father of Iraq's biological weapons program told CNN on Monday that he believes that program was shut down years ago -- something Saddam's regime claimed -- and that U.S. search teams are unlikely to find evidence of such weapons.

Nassir Hindawi said he left the biological weapons program in 1989, and that economic sanctions imposed in 1990 after Iraq invaded Kuwait effectively halted it. The materials inside Iraq from before the Kuwait invasion would probably not have been enough to keep the program going, he said.

Other developments

• The body of the last American listed as "missing" in the war with Iraq has been found, Army officials said Monday. Army Spc. Edward John Anguiano had been missing since an attack on his convoy with the 507th Maintenance Company near Nasariya on March 23. His body was found Thursday. (Full story)

• U.S. Central Command said Monday that Iraqis have returned more than 100 items, including a chest of priceless manuscripts, a 7000-year-old vase, an ancient bronze bas-relief bull, and a broken statue of an Assyrian king dated to the 9th century B.C.

• Enthusiastic troops gave U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld a rousing welcome Monday at Camp Doha in Qatar as he described their "remarkable achievement" in Iraq. "What all of you have accomplished will certainly go down in the history books," he told the crowd Monday morning. (Full story)

-- CNN correspondents Chris Burns, Kyra Phillips, Jane Arraf, Dana Bash, Jill Dougherty, David Ensor, John King, Nic Robertson and Barbara Starr, and producer Terry Frieden, contributed to this report.

EDITOR'S NOTE: CNN's policy is to not report information that puts operational security at risk.


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