FALLUJA (Reuters)–US troops killed 13 Iraqi demonstrators west of Baghdad overnight–witnesses said on Tuesday–in bloodshed sure to inflame anti-American anger.
US officers said they fired in self defense.
Witnesses in Falluja–30 miles outside the capital–told Reuters the troops opened fire late on Monday on several hundred unarmed demonstrators who had been demanding the soldiers vacate a school they were using as a barracks.
Falluja hospital director Ahmed Ghanim al-Ali said 13 people had been killed and at least 75 wounded in the incident. There were widely conflicting accounts of what had happened.
US 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 death toll at between seven and 10.
Two more senior members of Saddam Hussein’s old guard were in American hands on Tuesday.
US forces said they were holding the ousted president’s veteran oil minister–Amir Muhammed Rasheed–whose wife is bioweapons scientist Rihab Taha–widely known as "Dr. Germ.”
The Iraqi National Congress political party said another wanted official–Basra city governor Walid Hamid Tawfiq al-Tikriti–had given himself up and was being questioned by US officials in Baghdad.
Their capture means the Americans now hold 15 of the 55 most-wanted members of Saddam’s administration.
The Falluja shooting–and a clash between US forces and Iraqi fighters in the northern city of Mosul on Monday in which six Iraqis were killed–punctured some of the optimism generated by a mass meeting convened by the United States in Baghdad to kickstart the transition to democracy after Saddam’s fall.
"Our soul and our blood we will sacrifice to you martyrs,” mourners in Falluja chanted as they buried their dead at a cemetery while US helicopters flew overhead.
"It was a peaceful demonstration. They did not have any weapons,” said local Sunni Muslim cleric Kamal Shaker Mahmoud. "They were asking the Americans to leave the school so they could use it.”
ROCKS OR GRENADES?
A US officer at the scene–Lieutenant Colonel Eric Nantz–said the bloodshed occurred after the crowd had shot into the air–making it hard to tell if his men were under threat.
"There was a lot of celebratory firing … last night,” Nantz said–noting that Monday was Saddam’s 66th birthday.
"There were a lot of people who were armed and who were throwing rocks. How is a US soldier to tell the difference between a rock and a grenade?”
In the Mosul firefight–US forces said they killed six suspected paramilitaries loyal to Saddam.
In the heaviest fighting in the country for days–US units opened fire with heavy machineguns and lit up the night sky with red flares before calling in helicopter gunships.
US officers seeking to restore order in the volatile aftermath of Saddam’s fall said 3,000 to 4,000 extra troops and military police would go to Baghdad in the next 10 days to boost security in the capital.
Major General Glenn Webster–deputy commander of US land forces in Iraq–said the decision to bring in reinforcemen’s was not related to any specific incident.
With Saddam overthrown–the United States said on Tuesday it was ending military operations in neighboring Saudi Arabia and pulling nearly all of its forces out of the kingdom in a major realignment of its Gulf presence.
A joint announcement said Saudi Arabia had agreed the move with Washington. Riyadh denied press reports it had asked the United States to withdraw.
US officials said operations were being moved from the Prince Sultan airbase–used to control US-led air strikes in the Iraq war–to the Gulf state of Qatar–where the US Central Command has set up another air operations centre.
The announcement came as Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld visited the kingdom–his third stop on a week-long tour of the Gulf region.
US-SAUDI MILITARY TIES
The move effectively ends a relationship dating back to 1991 when the United States used Saudi Arabia as a launch pad for the last Gulf War to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait and then as a base to police a "no-fly” zone over southern Iraq.
The presence of Western troops in the kingdom–home to Islam’s holiest sites–has angered many Saudis–already incensed over US support for Israel.
The US presence was among the first grievances aired by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden to justify attacks against the United States. Washington blames bin Laden for the suicide attacks on the Pentagon and the World Trade Center in September 2001.
US officials would not say if Rumsfeld would visit Iraq itself during his tour–which has already taken him to Qatar– US headquarters for the war–and the United Arab Emirates.
US troops were widely welcomed for overthrowing Saddam but many Iraqis are now anxious for them to go home. Anti-American sentiment was stoked on Saturday when an arms dump exploded in southern Baghdad–killing at least 12 civilians.
In an echo of the diplomatic battles which preceded the US-British decision to invade Iraq without a fresh UN mandate–Russian President Vladimir Putin said on Tuesday international sanctions against Iraq should not be lifted until it became clear whether or not the country had banned weapons.
Speaking at a news conference after a meeting with British Prime Minister Tony Blair–who wants quick removal of UN sanctions–Putin said it was important now the war was over to establish whether Saddam really had weapons of mass destruction.
Saddam’s fate remain a mystery. His sons Qusay and Uday have also not been found–nor have the weapons of mass destruction which the United States said justified the war.
Key former Iraqi officials in US custody–including former Deputy Prime Minister Tareq Aziz–say Iraq has destroyed all its biological and chemical weapons.