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US soldier shoots down Baghdad protesters

Baghdad, June 18 (Reuters): A US soldier killed two protesters during an angry confrontation with former Iraqi soldiers outside the US headquarters in Baghdad today.

The US military said the soldier had acted in self-defence after a military convoy came under a hail of stones as it drove through the crowd.

In a separate incident a US soldier was killed and another wounded in a drive-by shooting in central Baghdad, a US military spokesman said.

The Iraqi demonstrators were killed as up to 2,000 former Iraqi soldiers protested in the fierce midday heat at their dismissal by the new US administration.

“There is no god but Allah, America is the enemy of Allah!” the crowd chanted after the shooting. “Down, down USA!”

The former Iraqi soldiers are disgruntled over losing their jobs when US administrator Paul Bremer dissolved Saddam Hussein’s armed forces last month. Bremer has his headquarters in the vast presidential compound once used by Saddam.

Bremer’s drive to destroy the legacy of Saddam’s Baathist rule has laid off up to 400,000 Iraqis who worked in the now-disbanded armed forces, security services and information and defence ministries, with no prospect of reintegration.

“We were in a peaceful demonstration asking the US to give us our salaries,” said Abdul-Rahim Hassan. “We were not fighting them, but suddenly they started shooting at us.”

US army Captain Scott Nauman, whose men were guarding the compound, told CNN television that Iraqis across the street had been throwing stones for nearly an hour before the shooting. He said the Iraqis had “swarmed the convoy, shaking the vehicles, breaking out windows, throwing rocks at extremely close range to the personnel in that convoy.

“(They) felt threatened understandably... and they fired shots then directly into the crowd and injured two personnel... To me it appeared to be in self-defence.” The captain said his men had fired warning shots over the crowd at the same time. Asked if there had been shooting from the crowd, he replied: “No, not to my knowledge.”

Lt Col Richard Douglas said both the injured men had been evacuated from the crowd but had died of their wounds. Earlier the protesters had beaten passing UN and press vehicles with their shoes and assaulted journalists.

Critics say Bremer’s sweeping “de-Baathification” policy fails to distinguish between the hard men who enforced Saddam’s cruel orders, the many who joined the party out of expediency and some genuine adherents to its Arab nationalist ideology.

They say the policy has created a large pool of armed and resentful unemployed who may turn to crime or to fighting the US-led occupation, perhaps as part of a Baathist underground.

Nauman said the demonstration was the fourth by Iraqi soldiers in the past few weeks and that officials had set up a meeting with some of the protesters for later today.

At least 42 American soldiers have been killed in a spate of attacks in and around Baghdad since US President George W. Bush declared major combat in Iraq over in early May.

A military spokesperson said reports two other US soldiers had been killed in a grenade attack in Baghdad were still being checked.

Not far from the turbulent scenes outside Bremer’s headquarters, Bechtel, the US firm named as prime contractor for rebuilding Iraq, was holding a conference with Iraqi businessmen who want a slice of the action. Andrew Natsios, head of the US Agency for International Development (USAID), which is working alongside Bechtel, was due to address the conference later.

Bremer says his top priority is building a “real economy which will provide real jobs” in post-war Iraq, as well as overseeing a political transition to democracy.

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