Published on Wednesday, April 30, 2003 by the Guardian/UK
To the US Troops It was Self-Defense. To the Iraqis It was Murder
by Jonathan Steele in Fallujah
To the Americans it was justified self-defense, to most residents it was murder.
What is beyond dispute is that 14 Iraqis were dead yesterday and 70 wounded lay in the main hospital, surrounded by angry family members, after US troops fired on a crowd of demonstrators.
The shooting late on Monday night was the bloodiest incident since the fall of Saddam Hussein. It occurred 40 miles west of Baghdad in an overwhelmingly Sunni town which had been quiet for two weeks until the Americans arrived.
By yesterday the mood was changed. Tempers were highly charged as demonstrators chanted slogans and waved their fists across coils of razor wire at men of the 82nd Air borne Division, the US army's elite paratroopers, who had commandeered a school in a residential street.
They were the ones who fired the fatal shots in what they insisted was return fire.
According to the Americans, tension had been mounting in the town for most of Monday as a few supporters of the former Iraqi president celebrated his 66th birthday and firing into the air. US commanders used loudspeakers to warn in Arabic that the firing could be perceived as a threat and be met with deadly force.
The crowd also included people with complaints about US checkpoints and demands that the Americans leave the school so that children could return to classes. They first gathered outside a US command post close to the town hall then marched to the main US post in the school. This was where the killing occurred.
Lieutenant Colonel Eric Nantz was not at the scene at the time but he insisted yesterday that people in the crowd fired the first shots at troops in the school. "They came under heavy fire. The troops on the roof returned fire. We later found eight AK-47s on the ground and nearby rooftops, and over 50 expended rounds. I don't know if it was planned," he said.
Cradling a machine gun, a soldier gave a more emotional account. As well as single shots fired from their M4 rifles US troops had used machine guns, he conceded.
Monday night's incident was not the first, explained the soldier, who refused to be named. "We've been sitting here taking fire for three days. It was enough to get your nerves wracked. When they marched down the road and started shooting at the compound there was nothing left for us to do but defend ourselves. They were firing from alleyways and buildings where we couldn't see.
"Guys were standing in line with hot chow. When bullets fell into the compound, people in that chow line ran for cover. From that moment on it was all business. We started putting on body armour and went up on that roof," he said.
Asked whether the troops could have mistaken shots fired into the air to celebrate Saddam's birthday with fire aimed at the US compound, the soldier insisted bullets had been coming over the roof.
No bullet holes were visible yesterday on the school, unlike the house opposite which had several holes.
Lying in hospital with his right foot amputated, Musana Saleh abdel Latif, 41, the house-owner who works as a taxi driver, gave a different version. "They just shot at the protesters. Some of the wounded tried to take cover in my front yard.
"My wife and I started to pull them in. I was hit in the foot. My wife was hit in both legs. My brother, Walid, came to take me to hospital, and he was shot and killed. Another brother was shot and injured."
Told that the Americans claimed to have been responding to fire from the crowd, he said: "They are lying. They're ready to shoot for any reason. They're criminals. Saddam Hussein is gone but I think he's better than the US."
In the town hall police inspector Omar Minar Esawi said there was no reason for US troops to be in Fallujah
They were not needed as liberators because the Iraqi army fled the day Baghdad fell. They were not needed as a security force because people had chosen a new mayor and the imams in the mosque had managed to stop the looting and get some of the stolen goods returned. Most of the police force was back in action.
"We controlled the town. When the troops came eight days ago they said they would stay for two or three days, but they're still here and the numbers have been increasing," he said. Like many Iraqis, Inspector Esawi is part of the "thank-you-and-goodbye" school of thought. With Saddam gone, the US ought to leave, he believes. "We need freedom and democracy. Now we're afraid because the US army creates these problems," he said.
Asked whether it might have been better to place his forces on the edge of town, Lt Col Nantz said: "No, I never considered that. You need to be engaged. You can't do that if you're sitting outside. We want to help them build themselves up and build a police force.
"It was obvious that some people did not appreciate us. But I still don't believe the majority was anti-coalition," he said. Monday's events have probably cut into that majority, if it ever existed.
© Guardian Newspapers Limited 2003