Falluja (Iraq), April 30 (Reuters): Tense and edgy in an unfamiliar country, wary of snipers and suicide bombers and faced by angry crowds, US troops in Iraq say they sometimes have no choice but to shoot first and ask questions later.
Iraqis say they are acting like cowboys.
Two Iraqis were killed in Falluja, near Baghdad, today when US soldiers fired on an angry crowd protesting about a similar incident two days earlier when at least 13 Iraqi demonstrators were killed in a hail of gunfire in the dark.
The US military said its troops were shot at first and that protesters were also flinging rocks — forcing soldiers to make a split-second decision on whether to return fire.
“How is a US soldier to tell the difference between a rock and a grenade'” said Lt Col Eric Nantz in Falluja.
But the deaths have stoked Iraqi anger — and raised the question of whether US troops can successfully police Iraq and fill the power vacuum left by the fall of Saddam Hussein.
“They are wandering inside and in between houses and in front of schools, like cowboys,” said Dr Talib al-Janabi, who runs a hospital in Falluja that treated some of the wounded.
US Central Command says soldiers must protect themselves in a country awash with guns: “While the coalition regrets any innocent casualties if they did occur, it also maintains the inherent right of self-defence for its forces when they are threatened by hostile forces,” it said in a statement.
But civilian casualties are mounting — unarmed Iraqis shot at road checkpoints, protesters fired on in Falluja and the northern city of Mosul. And with each death, Iraqi anger grows.
Iraqi fighters used guerrilla tactics against the US-led invasion launched on March 20 — militiamen fought in civilian clothes and in civilian areas, and US troops were targeted by suicide car bombers at checkpoints. Since the war ended, troops say they have been fired on on countless occasions.
The result is that every Iraqi appears a potential threat.
“Sometimes it has been very confusing whether the gunfire or grenades have come from men or women, because the crowds have been mixed. It has been necessary for us to look literally almost everywhere,” said Maj. Michael Marti, a brigade intelligence officer with the 82nd Airborne Division in Falluja.
Every burst of gunfire puts troops on edge — were the shots fired in the air by exuberant Iraqis, or aimed at soldiers' Every vehicle which fails to slow at a checkpoint is a potential suicide car bomb, and soldiers must decide whether to shoot.
In Falluja on Monday, troops were especially tense, fearing trouble from Saddam loyalists marking the dictator’s birthday.
Analysts say American troops have sometimes lacked the experience of how to win the trust of civilians.