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General sees new US priorities in Iraq

BAGHDAD -- The US military will consult Iraq's interim leaders before engaging in future offensives and is shifting its priorities from fighting guerrillas to training Iraqi troops and protecting Iraq's fragile new government, the US general who heads military operations said yesterday.

''Combat becomes a lower priority than it has been for much of the insurgent fight to date," said Lieutenant General Thomas F. Metz, who took command of the new Multinational Corps Iraq headquarters last month.

Metz said US forces ''certainly have the right" under a UN Security Council resolution approved Tuesday ''to conduct operations as we would like to."

But decisions on US operations will be made in concert with Iraq's incoming leaders, through liaisons sprinkled through coalition and Iraqi military units, Metz added.

One of the first tasks Metz identified was to declare which militias and rebel forces are ''the enemy."

''I don't think we're going to conduct a lot of operations where we disagree with the Iraqi government on who is hostile or not," Metz said in an interview on the sprawling coalition base on the edge of Baghdad International Airport. ''It's only to our benefit . . . to get the support of the interim Iraqi government."

Iraq's incoming prime minister, Iyad Allawi, has said the US military will not be permitted to repeat heavy offensives like the April siege of Fallujah, which involved helicopter gunships and Air Force bombings that killed hundreds of Iraqis, many of them civilians.

The aborted assault on Fallujah is widely seen as a mistake that cost the United States support among Iraqis and left Fallujah a rebel haven.

The UN resolution gives Iraqi leaders a say on ''sensitive offensive operations" by the US-led multinational force, but stops short of granting the Iraqis a veto over major US-led military operations as France and Germany had wanted.

Now, the US-led command is focusing intensely on rebuilding the Iraqi military and police, appointing a three-star US general to oversee the task, and giving it a higher priority than defeating anti-American guerrillas.

''Combat becomes a lower priority than it has been for much of the insurgent fight to date," Metz said.

Metz said another top job is guarding Iraq's economic infrastructure -- pipelines, electric pylons, roads -- needed to resuscitate the economy, while protecting the fragile, fledgling government selected to run the country until January's elections.

''There are very professional terrorists that would like to kill any number of those people," he said.

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