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Iraq: Town Tense After U.S. Troops Again Fire At Demonstrators

Prague, 30 April 2003 (RFE/RL) -- U.S. troops today opened fire for the second time in just over a day at anti-American demonstrators in the Iraqi town of Fallujah, about 50 kilometers west of Baghdad.

U.S. paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division involved in the incidents say that in both cases they were fired upon first by Iraqis with AK-47s who had positioned themselves within the crowd of protesters or on nearby rooftops.

But municipal officials of Fallujah, as well as some residents who saw the protests, say none of the hundreds of Iraqis taking part in the demonstrations were carrying any weapons. Instead, the residents of Fallujah -- a town dominated by Sunni Muslims and supporters of former Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein's Ba'ath Party -- say the U.S. troops opened fire without any provocation.

Recordings of the protests in Fallujah made by western journalists today captured the sound of an angry crowd chanting aggressive threats as they marched toward the positions of U.S. soldiers. A television camera crew from Reuters filmed demonstrators this morning shouting together in Arabic: "We swear by the Holy Koran that we will slay all Americans."

An Associated Press correspondent in Fallujah also confirmed this morning seeing a hostile crowd of more than 1,000 demonstrators throwing rocks at U.S. soldiers near a temporary U.S. base in a public building. Shortly afterwards gunfire broke out.

The Associated Press correspondent was inside the building when the shooting began and could not independently confirm whether anybody within or near the Iraqi crowd had fired weapons at the U.S. troops first.

Major Michael Marti of the U.S. 82nd Airborne Division said he also saw people within the crowd throwing stones at a nearby convoy of U.S. military vehicles. Major Marti says the stone throwing was followed by what he called "well-aimed" gunfire at the convoy by somebody within the crowd. He said it was only then that the U.S. soldiers in that convoy returned fire.

Other U.S. military officials in Fallujah have also said that at least one Iraqi man in the crowd pulled out an AK-47 from beneath his civilian robes and started firing in the direction of the U.S. convoy.

At the main hospital in Fallujah, Iraqi medical workers said they received the bodies of two Iraqi men killed in today's violence and were treating 15 other people for injuries. There were no immediate reports of any U.S. casualties.

Western correspondents in Fallujah say that while most residents of the town are now furious about the shootings, their overall feelings appear to be mixed. Some residents said they are happy the U.S. military ousted Hussein's regime. But they say they want U.S. troops to leave the country now that Hussein is out of power.

The director of RFE/RL's Iraqi service -- the former U.S. Ambassador to Iraq David Newton -- said he thinks much of the anti-American sentiment in Fallujah before the fatal shootings on 28 April can be attributed to the town's large Sunni Muslim population and apprehensions among that group about the changing political scene -- in particular, the emergence of a vocal Iraqi Shi'ite political movement led by clerics.

"The Sunnis have always been afraid of losing their position, really, of political dominance in the country. And now they see, with the departure of Saddam, the prospect [that] possibly the Shi'a will dominate them. And there is a good deal of prejudice against the Shi'a on the part of the Sunni," Newton said.

Newton explained that Iraqi Sunnis, like those in Fallujah, blame U.S. forces for weakening their political dominance. "They see their position now as compromised by the defeat of Saddam. That doesn't mean they liked the government of Saddam. But they liked their position of predominance -- which goes back hundreds of years. And so they blame the Americans for having destroyed that situation," he said.

Hospital officials in Fallujah have said 13 Iraqis were killed when U.S. troops opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators on 28 April.

A statement from the U.S. military's Central Command about that incident said some 25 armed Iraqis in civilian clothes had positioned themselves among around 200 protesters and on the rooftops of nearby buildings. The Central Command statement said those armed Iraqis started firing at the U.S. troops first.

Pentagon officials have responded to the incidents by reiterating that the rules of engagement for U.S. soldiers in postwar Iraq are clear. When U.S. troops are fired upon, the Pentagon says they have the right to defend themselves.

U.S. Major General Glenn Webster told Iraqi citizens at the meeting in Baghdad yesterday that U.S. forces also are empowered to use force to prevent looting and the killing of innocent civilians to try to bring order to the country's chaotic postwar environment.

"If someone is breaking the law and intends to harm innocent civilians or to steal their property, soldiers should be empowered to enforce the law and keep them from doing so. Now that does not mean that anyone breaking the law will be shot. It simply means that if force is required to protect life and property, then our soldiers are authorized to use it," Major General Webster said.

Criticisms raised by Baghdad citizens against U.S. forces for failing to prevent widespread looting in the capital earlier this month underscore the mixed range of views in Iraq about the role of U.S. soldiers in post-Saddam Iraq. The U.S. troops are criticized by Iraqis who say they should do more to bolster security, as well as by those who say they should leave immediately.