A top humanitarian agency urged US and British forces to do more to restore security in Iraq as the five opposition leaders tapped by Washington to form the core of a new government were due to meet.
The appeal by the International Red Cross came as US forces indicated that ensuring security was taking priority over the hunt for Saddam Hussein's alleged illegal stockpile of weapons of mass destruction, the official reason the United States and Britain used to justify their invasion.
Officials in Washington said no decision had yet been taken on whether to allow UN nuclear inspectors to verify reports that radioactive material may have been pilfered from Iraqi sites.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft pledged to hunt down the organised gangs he said were behind the widespread looting of Iraqi museums and libaries after the fall of the regime, as law enforcement authorities met in France to step up efforts to recover the artifacts.
In a blunt warning before a meeting with the US civilian administrator for Iraq Jay Garner, International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) chief Jakob Kellenberger said more needs to be done to provide security.
Kellenberger said that under international law the "occupying powers" had clear duties and responsibilities to "impose public law and order, to secure the well being of the population and protect essential infrastructures such as hospitals," he told reporters at an ICRC press conference.
"I have the strong feeling that more has to be done for security," he said.
His comments follow a warning Saturday the top UN official in Iraq that conditions were still ripe for a humanitarian disaster as too many people were going without food, water and power, nearly a month after the fall of Saddam's regime.
Coalition forces appear to be hearing the appeals, saying ensuring security is their top priority.
"The NBC (nuclear, biological, chemical) operations are being looked at as more important than [in other wars] but they're not the main priority, which is establishing security," said Captain Bobbie Jackson, chemicals officer for the division's 2nd Brigade.
"Once all the pockets of resistance are cleared up I think the search will intensify."
Coalition forces have apparently failed to secure several Iraqi nuclear research and storage sites, with The Washington Post reporting at the weekend that extensive plundering made it impossible for US experts to determine if nuclear material had been stolen.
The sites had contained some materials that could be used to build a "dirty bomb" — using conventional explosives to scatter radioactive waste.
The UN nuclear watchdog, the International Atomic Energy Agency (IAEA), has asked Washington to send a team to investigate reports that looting had taken place at a nuclear site south of Baghdad.
A US official said late Monday in Washington that no decision had yet been made on the IAEA request.
"We're in touch with them on various issues all the time. But there is no decision at this point about what role they may or may not play in terms of evaluating and monitoring," State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said.
Boucher said facilities that housed the natural and low enriched uranium had been securied by coalition forces, but declined to answer when asked if radioactive material had been stolen.
Washington has strongly resisted suggestions that the UN weapons inspection team headed by the IAEA chief Mohamed ElBaradei and Hans Blix should now resume its work in verifying Iraqi disarmament.
"I don't think there is any role for the United Nations in the short term in searching for or identifying or securing weapons of mass destruction," US Under-Secretary of State John Bolton said Monday in Moscow.
Efforts to form a new Iraqi leadership appear to be gaining speed, although no date has yet been set for a national conference of hundreds of delegates from Iraq's myriad religious, ethnic and tribal groups to select an interim government.
"The five opposition leaders have begun having meetings and they are going to bring in leaders from inside Iraq and see if we can't form a nucleus of leadership as we enter into June," Garner said on a trip to Basra in the south.
The five were expected to hold an internal meeting later Tuesday and hold talks with US officials on Wednesday.
Massoud Barzani and Jalal Talabani, heads of the two main Kurdish factions, as well as Abdul Aziz al-Hakim from the Supreme Assembly for Islamic Revolution in Iraq, a Shiite Muslim group, Ahmad Chalabi of the Iraqi National Congress and Iyad Allawi of the Iraqi National Accord were the men named by Garner.
He said that group could expand to include perhaps four others.
ICRC chief Kellenberger said the US-British coalition had given the ICRC access to more than 7,000 soldiers and civilians captured during and since the three-week war to topple Saddam Hussein's regime.
"But we can't visit all the prisoners," he added, repeating a demand for the ICRC to be given full access.
The Red Cross has been barred from seeing any of the senior officials who have been arrested by or surrendered to coalition forces, now numbering some 18 of the 55 on the US military's most wanted list.
On Monday the United States announced the capture of a top female biological weapons scientist, Huda Salih Mahdi Ammash, 49, dubbed "Mrs Anthrax".
The United States made it clear it considered her detention as a major catch, as it struggles to uncover the biological and chemical weapons.
US Attorney General John Ashcroft vowed to hunt down the organised gangs he said were behind the looting of tens of thousands of artefacts from the National Archaeological Museum in Baghdad and other museums during the anarchic spree that followed the US-led victory last month.
"There is a strong case to be made that the looting and theft of the artefacts was perpetrated by organised criminal groups — criminals who knew precisely what they were looking for," Ashcroft told a conference at the headquarters of the international police agency Interpol.
"Although the criminals who committed the theft may have transported the objects beyond Iraq's borders, they should know they have not escaped the reach of justice," he said.
A major effort has been launched to prevent them reaching the international art market.
The two-day conference at Interpol's headquarters in the French city of Lyon brought together national police forces and experts from the International Council of Museums and the UN's cultural agency UNESCO with the aim of coordinating the attempts to track the stolen items.matrix.bangkokpost.co.th/afp_news/060503/030506123046.po428i4r.htmlE-mail this article