Iraqis are calling on Washington
 to hand over power

Bremer said US officials were moving as quickly as possible to hand over the oil-rich nation to Iraqis, adding that Washington wanted to include political groups from all across Iraqi society.

Bremer did not give a specific date for the meeting.

In late April influential Iraqi leaders agreed to hold a national conference by the end of May.

But on Monday, a spokesman for the Iraqi National Congress (INC), headed by US-backed Ahmad Chalabi, said an interim government would be established by the end of June.

Iraqi political groups have called for a swift handover of authority to a fully-fledged Iraqi government. Some say Washington has back-pedalled on promises to form an Iraqi transitional authority.

Law and order

Bremer was speaking to reporters during a tour of a renovated prison in Baghdad. Since the fall of Baghdad on 9 April, the country has plunged into chaos with looting and crime running rampant.

Bremer admitted there was a problem with law and order, particularly during the evenings.

The United Nation’s top relief official in Baghdad said it was crucial to restore law and order, tying the humanitarian situation to a security vacuum. Ordinary Iraqis have criticised US troops for not restoring security sufficiently.  

Former New York City Police Commissioner Bernard Kerik arrived in Baghdad on Wednesday to advise on security matters. US occupation troops have joined Iraqi police in joint patrols.

Bremer said Baghdad’s police force would have to be expanded to about 8,000. He said new recruits would be screened for ties with the Baath party.

Iraqis say the US has
kept Baathists in power

But as he was leaving, Iraqi policemen shouted after Bremer that the police leadership still contained Baath members.

“Peacekeeping force” 

Meanwhile, North Atlantic Treaty Organisation (NATO) ambassadors agreed unanimously to provide Poland with logistical support in running a so-called stabilisation force in Iraq.

NATO chief George Robertson stressed the agreement would not amount to the organisation’s direct involvement in Iraq.

Under US plans for Iraq, the country will be divided into three sectors and patrolled by British, Polish, American soldiers. Warsaw said it will hold a meeting on Thursday and Friday to decide on which sectors US and British troops would control.

The “peacekeeping force” has come under fire from the United Nations for not including the world body. 

In other developments, Washington said it will allow a limited return of UN nuclear weapons inspectors to Iraq to investigate looted nuclear sites, two months after they were forced to leave the country.