BAGHDAD, Iraq — The military presence in Baghdad lightened Sunday when Marines left the Army in control of the stabilizing capital. Celebrating Easter, a longtime Iraqi bishop voiced the fears of the Christian minority in urging safeguards against religious persecution in the new Iraq.
The search for postwar order was reinforced by signs that Syria might help ease regional tensions.
And authorities declared the Iraqi missile threat against Israel ended and prepared for the departure of U.S. soldiers manning defensive Patriot missile batteries south of Tel Aviv.
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.
“They’re getting the message,” Bush said.
Tensions eased elsewhere in the region. In Israel, authorities declared the Iraqi missile threat against their citizens ended and prepared for the departure of U.S. soldiers manning defensive Patriot missile batteries south of Tel Aviv.
Hoping to advance the frustrating search for banned weapons, allied forces announced the arrest of a top science official from Saddam’s government — a man who might know about Iraq’s purported hidden nuclear weapons program, according to a pro-U.S. Iraqi umbrella opposition group.
U.S. Central Command said Abd al-Khaliq Abd al-Ghafar, Saddam’s higher education and scientific research minister, was taken into custody Saturday. Haider Ahmed, spokesman for the London-based Iraqi National Congress, said Abd al-Ghafar could be an important find.
“We know about his background, and he is certainly involved with those banned programs,” he said.
Ahmed also said Saddam Hussein’s son-in-law and one of Saddam’s bodyguards, both hiding in Syria, were persuaded to leave that country and surrendered to members of the congress in Baghdad.
Jamal Mustafa Abdallah Sultan al-Tikriti 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.
Bush attended Easter services 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.
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, a West Virginia Democrat, and Darrell Issa, a California Republican, were the first U.S. officials to meet Assad since tensions rose over Syria’s alleged cooperation with the Saddam government during the war.
Baghdad, increasingly secure but still lacking a government, prepared for a visit today by Jay Garner, the retired lieutenant general chosen to step into the power vacuum and temporarily lead the administration of Iraq.
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, an Indiana Republican, 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 not let religious parties 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 yesterday, leaving Army units to patrol the entire capital and the northern half of the country.
The shuffle notably reduces troop strength in the capital, but officials did not say by how much. Soldiers met community leaders 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.”
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.
At Tel Yona military base in Israel, Maj. Gen. Stanley Green presided over a ceremony ending a joint task force mission to protect Israelis from Iraqi missile attack. He said the 700 U.S. soldiers involved will come home next month.
Iraq did not attack Israel in this war. In the 1991 Gulf War, Iraq fired 39 Scud missiles at Israel.