The United States is sending a 1,000-strong force to Iraq to hunt for weapons of mass destruction (WMD), Pentagon officials said on Thursday, as Iraq's neighbours prepared to meet in Riyadh on Friday on Iraq's future.
The CNN television network quoted US defence officials as saying the "Iraq Survey Group" would probably be led by a general and would consist of military personnel, government intelligence analysts, civilian scientists and private contractors.
Initial elements of the WMD team are already on the ground in Iraq and the full contingent should be operational within two weeks, CNN quoted a Pentagon official as saying.
The survey team will focus on putting a larger number of personnel into Iraq to conduct a more organized search for WMDs based on intelligence leads, the network said.
This latest effort to locate the elusive WMDs, said CNN, underscores the growing Pentagon view that the United States no longer expects to find them on its own, but will have to offer rewards to Iraqis to draw out information on where to look.
The report was in line with statements earlier on Thursday by Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld to a town meeting at the Pentagon when he said, "I think what will happen is, we'll discover people who will tell us where to go find it.
"It is not like a treasure hunt, where you just run around looking everywhere hoping you find something," said Rumsfeld. "The (UN weapons) inspectors didn't find anything, and I doubt that we ill. What we will do is find the people who will tell us."
In the Gulf, the Saudi official news agency SPA said Friday's meeting would be attended by top officials of Syria, Jordan and Egypt, Turkey and Bahrein, as well as Saudi Arabia and the Arab League.
The meeting, it said, reflected regional concerns that Washington intended to stamp its indelible print on a post-war Iraq and dominate the transition process to a democratic regime.
On Thursday, US forces in Baghdad captured Saddam Hussein's half-brother and former intelligence chief Barzan al-Tikriti, seen as a major coup in US efforts to round up members of the Iraqi leader's toppled regime.
And Washington said FBI agents were in Baghdad investigating the looting of priceless treasures from the capital's main antiquities museum.
In other developments, Washington said it would use some of the $1.7 billion in confiscated Iraqi funds in the United States to pay Iraqi civil servants in the war-scarred nation.
But the capture of al-Tikriti dominated news out of Baghdad on Thursday as Iraqis continued to adjust to the dawning post-Saddam era in their war-torn country.
US Central Command spokesman Brigadier General Vincent Brooks described Saddam's half-brother as an advisor to the former Iraqi leader with "extensive knowledge of the regime's inner workings."
Barzan's capture came more than a week after Baghdad fell to US troops, but bloody incidents in several parts of Iraq marred US efforts to put a lid on post-Saddam chaos and start rebuilding the shattered country.
In a brief firefight near Baghdad, US troops killed several Iraqi fighters and captured 100, while in northern Iraq, violence continued to rock the oil city of Mosul.
Barzan, Iraqi intelligence chief in the early 1980s, figured on the Pentagon's list of the 55 most wanted men of Saddam's regime.
But the fate of Saddam, who ruled Iraq with an iron fist since 1979, remained a mystery.
With the Baghdad museum virtually emptied by looters of its Mesopatamia-era antiquities, the FBI's Mueller told a Washington news conference, "We are firmly committed to doing whatever we can to secure these treasures for the people of Iraq."
At a meeting in Paris to take stock of the damage to Iraq's cultural heritage during the war, experts at the UN Educational, Scientific and Cultural Organization (UNESCO) said organized gangs who traffic in works of ancient art had carried out much of the looting of archaeological treasures.
In Washington, President George W. Bush's top cultural advisor resigned in protest of US failure to stop the looting, according to a letter released on Thursday.
With post-war reconstruction now a top priority, the United Nations urged that sufficient resources be made available for the shattered country as the European Union called for the UN to play a central role.
"Any role entrusted to the United Nations, beyond the purely humanitarian, (must be) consistent with the (UN) charter, and matched by the necessary resources," UN Secretary General Kofi Annan said in Athens.
Syria also remained high on the US agenda, with Washington announcing that Secretary of State Colin Powell could visit Damascus to maintain dialogue after US accusations that Damascus was harbouring former members of Saddam's regime and developing weapons of mass destruction.
In Baghdad, where five million people remained largely without water and power early Friday after three weeks of bombing destroyed much of the capital's infrastructure, US Marines said they hoped to restore electricity to half of the population later in the day.
Hundreds of former Iraqi policemen were signing up for their old jobs in the country's second-largest city of Basra in the south before being vetted for links to Saddam's regime.
And in the northern oil city of Kirkuk, oil workers have been asked to return to work on Saturday and hundreds have queued up.
In Kuwait, the 12-year-old Iraqi boy who touched hearts worldwide after a US missile strike cost him both arms and left him orphaned and severely burned was recovering after undergoing skin-graft surgery.
With the military campaign in Iraq winding down, attention focused on the humanitarian situation in the country.
UN's children's agency UNICEF warned that Iraqi hospitals faced a "horrible" situation, and that at least one had been so overwhelmed by the number of dead that staff were forced to bury most of them in the hospital's garden.
The European Commission said it had begun preparations to airlift wounded Iraqi children to hospitals in Europe in collaboration with the Red Cross, and 40 doctors and medical personnel left the Czech Republic to establish a field hospital in Basra.
The US army's top civil administration officer in the country said his humanitarian mission was only "about 10 percent" complete.
Bush's call for the lifting of UN sanctions so Iraq could freely trade its oil on world markets received a cool reception at the UN Security Council on Thursday.
Russia, a veto-wielding member of the council, said it would not support the lifting of sanction unless UN inspectors could confirm that Iraq has no weapons of mass destruction.
US forces have yet to unearth any of the weapons of mass destruction Washington claimed Saddam's regime was developing and which it used to justify going to war on March 20.
Chief UN arms inspector Hans Blix told the BBC that his inspectors could give credibility to any discovery of banned weapons made by US or British troops in Iraq.
"I think the world would like to have a credible report on the absence or the eradication of the programme of weapons of mass destruction," he said.
But Washington said its was not yet time for the inspectors to return to Iraq.