August 14, 2003

U.S. Troops Fire on Iraqi Crowd, Killing One

Witnesses say a boy was slain after the Shiites shot guns in the air and threw rocks in Baghdad. American soldiers say they were targeted.

By Robyn Dixon, Times Staff Writer


U.S. troops fired on a crowd that had gathered for a religious festival in a poor Baghdad neighborhood on Wednesday, killing one person and wounding several others in an incident that threatened to further alienate Iraqis from occupation forces.

Clerics in Sadr City, a predominantly Shiite Muslim district, said a 12-year-old boy was killed, and they warned that if U.S. troops tried to return to the area today, residents were likely to open fire at them.

The U.S. and Iraqi versions of what happened differed widely, underscoring the gap in perceptions that often exists between the two sides. Shiites are a majority in Iraq, and the clash in one of Baghdad's most populous neighborhoods could damage the Americans' relations with religious leaders and people in other Shiite strongholds of the country.

Sadr City, an area that was strongly opposed to Saddam Hussein, initially welcomed the U.S.-led forces that ousted the Iraqi president, and until now has been relatively free of attacks against the Americans and their allies.

An American military spokesman said the crowd had thrown rocks and fired guns and a rocket-propelled grenade at American forces, triggering U.S. retaliatory fire. The spokesman confirmed that one person was killed and four were wounded but could not confirm that the dead person was a child.

Local Shiite clerics confirmed that the first shots came from the crowd. However, they said people in the crowd only fired in the air to protest the presence of a U.S. military helicopter that they said knocked down a religious banner on a tower.

Wednesday's violence followed several other recent incidents between the U.S.-led occupation forces and Iraqis. Shortages of electricity and gasoline caused by infrastructure problems, sabotage and smuggling led to several days of violent protests against British occupation forces in the southern city of Basra over the weekend. In Baghdad, Iraqis said U.S. troops at a checkpoint opened fire on a family driving in a small car, killing a man and three of his children. His wife and a fourth child survived.

The country's U.S. civilian administrator, L. Paul Bremer III, told Al Jazeera television this week that resistance in Iraq is limited to "bitter-enders" from the former regime, not anti-Hussein Iraqis alienated in recent months by the actions of the occupation forces.

One American was killed and one wounded Wednesday south of Tikrit when their convoy hit a roadside explosive. On Tuesday, another soldier was killed and two wounded in a bomb attack just north of Baghdad.

A U.S. military spokesman, Col. Guy Shields, told reporters Wednesday that American troops were being given cultural awareness classes to help them understand Iraq. He acknowledged some unhappiness among soldiers about the length of their tours in Iraq, but said that morale was "still pretty good."

At the center of the dispute in Sadr City is a claim by many witnesses that a U.S. military helicopter approached a tower Wednesday morning and knocked down a black religious banner.

Local people are convinced the action was intentional.

Al Jazeera aired footage of a helicopter approaching a tower where the banner was flying, appearing to almost bump the tower.

But U.S. officials said about 3,000 protesters had crowded around an American patrol as it neared a mosque in the neighborhood. Muslim clerics sometimes protest when U.S. forces approach mosques.

A helicopter was called in for support, and the religious banner was accidentally blown down, the spokesman said, adding that when the crowd opened fire, U.S. forces returned fire.

The U.S. spokesman said there was no reason for the Americans to apologize.

"If you throw rocks or fire at U.S. forces, then we'll return fire," the spokesman said. "The proximity of non-Muslims close to a mosque is somehow viewed as a threat. We disagree. It's our prerogative to travel wherever we want to in this country."

He described the protest as "something that was slightly contrived."

Tariq Ubaid, a 35-year-old cleric, predicted a violent response if the Americans came to the neighborhood today. He said Shiite religious figures had prevented the crowds from firing directly at the American soldiers on Wednesday.

"The Americans want to prove that they are occupiers and that they can do whatever they like," Ubaid said. "They want to see what kind of reaction people will have against them."

He said that if Americans returned today, clerics would do nothing to stop people from attacking them.

"It's up to the people what they do," he said. "They will attack them with their weapons. Today, we forbade people from shooting the Americans. We stopped them," he said.

Resentful people milled around in knots in the neighborhood Wednesday evening, many talking about the shootings.

"The helicopter pushed the banner, and it fell down. People started running and chanting and protesting," said one witness, Haj Qasim, 55. He estimated the number of protesters at about 200.

He said when the protests began, the helicopter disappeared and four military vehicles arrived. "The Americans started to shoot randomly," he said.

"Why did they want to take the banner? It's not hurting anybody. It's a religious banner," he said. "We didn't hurt them. We didn't do anything, but now they're hurting us. People here are very angry. I think if an American convoy comes here, people will shoot."

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