Falluja (Iraq), April 29 (Reuters): US troops killed 13 Iraqi demonstrators west of Baghdad overnight, witnesses said today, in bloodshed sure to inflame anti-American anger.
US officers said they fired in self defence.
Witnesses in Falluja, 50 km outside the capital, told Reuters the troops opened fire on several hundred unarmed demonstrators who had been demanding the soldiers vacate a school they were using as barracks.
Falluja hospital director Ahmed Ghanim al-Ali said 13 people were killed in the late night incident. His staff had treated 75 wounded, mostly hit by bullets or shrapnel. There were widely conflicting accounts of what had happened.
Lieutenant Christopher Hart said between 100 and 200 chanting people approached his men, who opened fire after two gunmen with combat rifles appeared from behind the crowd on a motorcycle and started shooting.
Some people in the crowd then also fired at the troops, he said. He put the toll between seven and 10.
The shooting in Falluja, and a clash between US forces and Iraqi fighters in Mosul in the north on Monday in which six Iraqis were killed, punctured some of the optimism generated by a mass meeting convened by America in Baghdad to kickstart the transition to democracy.
The shooting outraged local people who welcomed the removal of the hated Saddam Hussein by US-led forces but now want the American forces to leave. Coming on top of other incidents, it may fuel anti-American sentiment elsewhere in Iraq.
“They are stealing our oil and they are slaughtering our people,” said Shuker Abdullah Hamid, one of the victims’ cousin, venting the fury felt by many residents.
US helicopters hovered overhead as angry mourners buried the dead today. The white walls of houses near the school were pock-marked by bullets, bullet-riddled and wrecked cars stood by the roadside and traces of blood marked the ground.
US Central Command in Qatar said soldiers in Falluja had shot at gunmen who fired at them with AK-47 assault rifles. “The unit exercised its inherent right to self-defence and returned fire,” war headquarters said in a statement.
A local Sunni Muslim cleric, Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, said the protesters had asked the troops to leave the school so that lessons could resume there.