Prague, 12 January 2004 (RFE/RL) -- British military officials are investigating why a demonstration over unemployment in southern Iraq turned violent on 10 January, leaving at least five protesters dead.
Correspondents quote witnesses in the southern Iraqi city of Al-Amarah as saying that Iraqi police, and then British troops, opened fired on a crowd of some 1,500 demonstrators who were demanding jobs.
Some witnesses told reporters that the Iraqi police started to shoot live ammunition after individuals in the crowd threw rocks and grenades at them.
A British army spokesman, Major Tim Smith, says British troops who also fired their weapons were acting in self-defense: "I can confirm that one, maybe two -- but again it is still a little unclear at the moment -- were possibly killed by British troops. And the reason for that is that those troops were firing in self-defense. It was quite clear that a number of objects were thrown at the British troops -- possibly grenades. And so I can assure everybody that they only fired in self-defense. And everybody knows with what the British troops are doing down here, that is very much the way they do their business."
Smith explained that the protest was one of many that British troops have faced in southern Iraq over the issue of unemployment.
"A crowd developed in the morning and this has been a sort of ongoing issue of trying to deal with the local unemployment issue," he said. "But the crowd did develop. There were disturbances with the crowd. The police tried to deal with those disturbances. There were a number of shots that were fired. It's actually unclear at this stage who actually fired those shots."
Smith said British authorities have been able to confirm that at least five of the demonstrators were killed and that others were injured by gunfire.
"We can confirm that a total of five have died in the incident, though they were taken away by the crowd and taken to the local hospital. An investigation is under way now to actually work out clearly what did happen."
On the streets of Al-Amarah today, scores of Iraqi demonstrators gathered in front of the office of the provincial governor to demand compensation for the relatives of those who were killed.
Inside the building, Governor Riyadh Mahoud Meisan met today with local officials who he says will conduct their own investigation.
"We all feel sorry about what happened in Al-Amarah. It was an act of sabotage. All of us in the Meisan governing office and officials of Meisan Province feel sorry about that. We have formed committees to investigate the incident and committees to find solutions for unemployment in the short term. We hope to serve the people of Meisan."
Meanwhile, hospital staff in Al-Amarah have been working overtime to treat the injured. Dr. Saad al-Lami, who runs the Al-Zahrawi hospital in Al-Amarah, says his staff were kept busy throughout the day following the violence. "Eight injured people were brought to Al-Zahrawi hospital and one arrived dead," he says. "One of the wounded people suffered a gunshot wound to his head and was referred to Al-Basrah Teaching Hospital along with another one with an injury to the chest. I operated on one of the injured men who was shot in his right kidney and now he is in the intensive care ward. One dead man was brought to this hospital and I suspect that the others might have been brought to Al-Sadr hospital."
There have been many protests over the lack of jobs in Iraq since Saddam Hussein was toppled from power in April. On 6 January, Iraqi police opened fire in the southern city of Al-Basrah against former members of Hussein's military who were demanding payment of a promised stipend. At least four people were injured in that incident.
A joint United Nations-World Bank report issued in October says about half of Iraq's 26 million people are either unemployed or underemployed. Of those, about 400,000 are Iraqi soldiers who lost their jobs when the chief U.S. administrator for Iraq, L. Paul Bremer, abolished the army.