As the U.S. army postponed a summer homecoming for disappointed thousands of troops, the top civilian administrator said the length of the U.S occupation was in Iraqis' hands.
Maj. Gen. Buford C. Blount III, commander of the 3rd Infantry Division, said last week he hoped the division's 1st and 2nd Brigade Combat Teams of roughly 9,000 soldiers could return home to Fort Stewart within the next six weeks.
But the timing of homecomings for those soldiers, as well as the division's 3rd Squadron, 7th Cavalry Regiment, is now indefinite.
The units have been ordered to stay "due to the uncertainty of the situation in Iraq and the recent increase in attacks on the coalition forces," Blount said Monday in an e-mail message to Army spouses that was obtained by The Associated Press.
At a news conference, U.S. administrator for Iraq L. Paul Bremer said, "The timing of how long the coalition stays here is now in the hands of the Iraqi people."
Bremer applauded the formation of the Governing Council in the country on Sunday, a body that he played a major role in creating. He said the next political task for the country would be the writing of a constitution and eventually holding free elections.
In other developments:
The president was reacting questions over his claim during the State of the Union speech that Britain had learned Iraq tried to buy uranium from Africa.
The claim was withdrawn last week because the intelligence behind it appeared flawed — documents purporting to prove an Iraqi bid to Niger were deemed forgeries. But administration officials now say the claim was technically correct because it was based on what British intelligence said. Britain claims its evidence goes beyond the forged documents.
The governing council, which was announced Sunday, has the power to name ministers and approve the 2004 budget. The 25-member body is comprised of prominent Iraqis from all walks of political and religious life and will have some political muscle even though the Americans have made clear they have ultimate control.
A spokesman for one group on the council said Tuesday that it will begin forming a Cabinet next week.
Fawzi Hariri, a spokesman for the Kurdistan Democratic Party, rejected criticism that the council lacked independence from U.S. occupational authorities and L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator of Iraq and a major architect of the council.
"The council will have major authority. It will be the real ruler of Iraq," Hariri said.
But doubts remain. In Kazimyah, a predominantly Shiite neighborhood of north Baghdad, thousands turned out Tuesday for the funeral of Ahmed al-Waeli, a prominent cleric who died in Baghdad of natural causes less than a week after his return from exile. Many at the funeral used the occasion to criticize the council, saying it was not elected and illegitimate.
Also Tuesday, the city council of Sunni-majority Fallujah said it rejected the Shiite-dominated council's authority because it was selected along ethnic lines.
The 3rd Infantry Division deployed 16,500 troops to Iraq and was a leading force in the assault on Baghdad. The division suffered 36 deaths — more than any other U.S. unit in the war — and some of its troops have been in the Gulf region since September.
The news of the extended stay upset family members. It's the second time 3rd Infantry soldiers have seen the Army back off from a tentative return date. After Mr. Bush declared the heavy fighting over May 1, many families were told to prepare for homecomings in June.