August 15, 2003

U.S. Apologizes for Firing on Iraqi Crowd

Amid the threat of riots, an official vows to curb patrols in a Shiite slum after the fatal clash.

By Edmund Sanders and Robyn Dixon, Times Staff Writers


Moving quickly to try to defuse anger that threatens to ignite riots in a Baghdad slum, U.S. military leaders admitted it was a mistake for troops to open fire on civilians who became hostile after a helicopter interrupted their religious gathering.

U.S. officials said the shootings Wednesday occurred after residents of the Shiite Muslim neighborhood threw stones and fired weapons, including a rocket-propelled grenade, at the helicopter because they believed it had deliberately knocked a religious banner off a communications tower. One person was killed and four injured.

The local U.S. commander expressed deep regret and vowed to scale back patrols and helicopter flights in the impoverished district of northeastern Baghdad formerly known as Saddam City. Locals recently renamed it Sadr City in honor of a celebrated Shiite cleric.

The quick and unusual apology immediately dismissed by local clerics as inadequate comes as U.S. occupation leaders are grappling with rising Iraqi outrage over mounting civilian casualties at checkpoints and during raids.

The gesture also underscored the U.S. desire to maintain support among Shiite Muslims, who make up 60% of Iraq's population and are key to the nation's reconstruction. U.S. officials hope that Sadr City Shiites will at least take a neutral stance as rebuilding efforts progress.

"Our intent is not to alienate the Shia people," Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, commander of U.S. ground troops in Iraq, said at a briefing in Baghdad on Thursday.

Accounts of what happened differ. Witnesses alleged that soldiers in the helicopter deliberately tried to remove the banner, but Sanchez said it appeared to be an accident. In the ensuing gunfire, local clerics said, a 10-year-old boy was killed. Sanchez said Thursday that troops killed the individual who launched the rocket-propelled grenade, but clerics, who have video footage of the incident, insist that no such weapon was used.

In his letter of apology to the clerics, Army Lt. Col. Christopher K. Hoffman, commander of the 2nd Squadron of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, said: "We deeply regret what has happened today. What occurred was a mistake and was not directed against the people of Sadr City. I am personally investigating this incident and will punish those that are responsible." The letter was dated Wednesday and offered compensation and medical treatment to those injured.

A second message of apology was sent late Thursday, clerics said, offering to pull troops back "for the time being."

But the religious leaders rejected both overtures, demanding an immediate and permanent withdrawal of U.S. troops from Sadr City, an apology from a higher-ranking officer and compensation to victims in accordance with Islamic law.

They likened Wednesday's attack to the oppression the Shiite community endured under Saddam Hussein, who prohibited the sort of Islamic banners the U.S. helicopter knocked down.

"What happened yesterday is something that would have happened in Saddam's time," said Sheik Qasi Khazali, a representative of the outspoken Shiite cleric Muqtader Sadr, who has a large following in the neighborhood. Sadr is the son of the revered ayatollah assassinated in 1999 for whom the neighborhood is named.

Sadr has preached against the U.S.-led occupation and called on Iraqis to form a people's army to expel the troops. However, in recent days he has taken a slightly more conciliatory stance, urging peaceful resistance. He had not personally spoken out about the incident as of late Thursday.

Even as U.S. forces worked to quell the anger in the neighborhood Thursday, the military was taking steps in other parts of the capital to try to reduce the threat of violence against U.S. troops. Red and white handbills appeared in the Karada shopping district, offering people rewards of $250 to $500 for turning in weapons such as grenade launchers.

But attacks continued to claim the lives of coalition troops. A British soldier was killed and two were wounded near the southern city of Basra on Thursday when a blast from an improvised explosive device hidden near a lamppost hit their ambulance, said Lt. Cmdr. Richard Walters, a British military spokesman.

Walters said the military ambulance was clearly marked with a red cross, and he noted that such vehicles are used both for Iraqi civilians and military personnel.

The civilian toll has been climbing along with the military one. Last Friday, a father and his three daughters were killed when U.S. soldiers fired on their car as it approached a military checkpoint north of Baghdad.

In most previous incidents, the U.S. military has offered only general statements of regret over the war's toll on innocent civilians, or declined to comment pending the outcome of an investigation. But Thursday, U.S. officials appeared to be striking a different tone. Sanchez, who last week promised to make military raids more targeted and less intrusive on average citizens, said he would also move to improve checkpoints to make them more visible.

In addition to security concerns, Khazali, the cleric's spokesman, complained that little has improved in Sadr City during the occupation. Electricity rarely works. Goats feed on piles of garbage in the street. Gutters flow with raw sewage.

The clerics rejected Hoffman's request to talk Saturday, giving the U.S. until today to meet their demands.

"If they do not, we will not prevent the people from attacking American troops when they enter the city," Khazali said. In an impromptu demonstration Thursday night, about 200 men waving pistols and rifles gathered to chant slogans in support of Sadr.

Iraqi police, who have launched their own investigation, have been serving as mediators between the Shiite leaders and the military.

Although Hoffman's letter offered to provide treatment to the injured and pay compensation to the victims, Heider Abdul Hussein, 27, said Thursday, a day after being shot in the lower back, that he had not yet heard from any U.S. officials.

Hussein, who lives with his family near the base of the tower, said he was getting ready to make breakfast when he heard the helicopter overhead and ventured outside to see what was going on. He said he saw a female soldier in the low-flying helicopter attempting to rip the religious banner. Minutes later, he heard shots and felt a sharp pain in his lower back.

"What did I do?" he asked Thursday, grimacing in his bloodstained hospital bed. "I didn't have any weapons. I'm not affiliated with any political party or with Al Sadr. Americans keep talking about liberty and human rights. Is this human rights?"

His doctor said Hussein will probably suffer permanent damage in his right leg, including partial paralysis.

"Saddam was better than this," Hussein said. "At least under Saddam, if you didn't do anything wrong, they left you alone."

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