FALLUJAH, Iraq – U.S. troops opened fire on anti-American demonstrators for the second time this week as Iraqis marched Wednesday to protest the previous shooting. The city’s mayor said two people were killed and 14 wounded in the clash.
U.S. Central Command said soldiers in a convoy passing the demonstrators were shot at, and then returned fire. But city officials who witnessed the incident said they saw or heard no shooting from among the protesters.
There was no immediate indication of American casualties.
The gunfire came less than 48 hours after a shooting during a demonstration Monday night that hospital officials said killed 13 Iraqis.
The clashes in Fallujah, a conservative Sunni Muslim city and Baath Party stronghold 30 miles west of Baghdad, reflect the area’s increasing tensions as American troops try to keep the peace in Iraq (news – web sites).
About 1,000 residents marching down Fallujah’s main street stopped Wednesday in front of a battalion headquarters of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division, in a compound formerly occupied by Saddam Hussein (news – web sites)’s Baath Party. The demonstrators carried signs condemning Monday night’s shooting.
This was no peaceful demonstration, the Americans insisted. They said protesters threw rocks and shoes; Maj. Michael Marti, an intelligence officer for the division’s 2nd Brigade, said a vehicle window was broken by what was believed to be automatic weapons fire.
Lt. Col. Tobin Green, commander of the 2nd squadron of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which is taking over from the 82nd Airborne in Fallujah, said a six-vehicle convoy was shot at and responded with gunfire.
“The evildoers are deliberately placing at risk the good civilians. These are deliberate actions by the enemy to use the population as cover,” said Green.
U.S. Central Command in Doha, Qatar, said American forces fired in response to rock-throwing and weapons fire.
“The convoy returned fire, and the crowd was dispersed by the arrival of coalition helicopters,” said Capt. Stewart Upton, a Central Command spokesman.
Fallujah Mayor Taha Bedaiwi al-Alwani said two people were killed and 14 wounded and asked for an investigation and compensation for victims.
After a meeting Wednesday with U.S. troops, the mayor said U.S. soldiers have been asked to stay away from mosques, residential areas and other sensitive places. The Americans agreed to study the request.
“Many people believe these are occupying forces. And many of them are still cautious until they see their intentions,” said al-Alwani, a former Iraqi exile and opponent of the previous regime.
U.S. Apache attack helicopters circled the site throughout the march and for hours afterward, barely skimming the tops of the tiled-roof minarets of Fallujah, known as “the city of mosques.”
U.S. officers met with the mayor and leading area sheiks in hopes of reducing the tensions, while several dozen demonstrators clustered angrily outside the town hall.
“Get out, get out!” one protester shouted at soldiers guarding the meeting.
“We will keep this up, we will keep them on edge,” said another protester, 29-year-old Abdul Adim Mohammed Hussein.
Emerging from the meeting, the imam of the Grand Fallujah Mosque, Jamal Shaqir Mahmood, said “The Americans said ‘we won’t reduce the numbers, they’re needed for security.’ But the people of Fallujah told them we already have security.”
During Saddam’s rule, Fallujah was a stronghold of the ruling Baath Party, in part because of the presence of key chemical and other factories of the regime’s military-industrial complex that provided jobs to workers and generated wealth to local businessmen.
Fallujah sent many of its young men to elite regime units such as the Republican Guard and Special Republican Guard, and the fall of Saddam threatens the city’s network of privilege and power.
The American forces have given no indication they might cut back their presence here. However, U.S. forces did leave their station at the school where Monday’s shooting took place.
From the back of a pickup truck, Jamal addressed a crowd of 250 people Wednesday.
“We demand the Americans leave this place,” Jamal said. “(But) please don’t confront the U.S. troops.”
As they did after Wednesday’s incident, Americans and Iraqis have given sharply differing accounts of Monday night’s shooting. Paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne said they opened fire only upon armed men _” about 25 infiltrators among a crowd of 200. Protesters insisted their demonstration was unarmed and peaceful.
Dr. Ahmed Ghandim al-Ali, director of Fallujah’s general hospital, said the clash Monday killed 13 Iraqis _” including three young boys _” and injured about 75. Some residents put the death toll higher, at 15.
No Americans were injured.