At least 10 people were killed and scores wounded in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul when US troops fired on a crowd angered by a speech by the new US-backed governor, witnesses reported.
The charges were denied by a US military spokesman in the city Tuesday, who said troops had first come under fire from at least two gunmen and fired back, without aiming at the crowd.
But the incident overshadowed the start of US-brokered talks aimed at sketching out the country's future leadership in the southern city of Nasiriyah, a Shiite Muslim bastion where 20,000 people marched through the city chanting "No to America, No to Saddam."
An Iraqi girl waits in a truck to pass a checkpoint at the entrance of Mosul. Witnesses reported US troops fired on a crowd killing at least ten and wounding dozens more. (AFP/File/Joseph Barrak)
The firefight in Mosul broke out as the newly-appointed governor of the city was making a speech from the building housing his offices which listeners deemed was too pro-US, witnesses said.
"There were protesters outside, 100 to 150, there was fire, we returned fire," a US military spokesman said, adding the initial shots came from a roof opposite the building, about 75 metres (yards) away.
"We didn't fire at the crowd, but at the top of the building," the spokesman added. "There were at least two gunmen, I don't know if they were killed."
"The firing was not intensive but sporadic, and lasted up to two minutes," the spokesman said.
But witnesses charged that US troops fired into the crowd after it became increasingly hostile towards the new governor, Mashaan al-Juburi.
"They (the soldiers) climbed on top of the building and first fired at a building near the crowd, with the glass falling on the civilians. People started to throw stones, then the Americans fired at them," said Ayad Hassun, 37.
"Dozens of people fell," he said, his own shirt stained with blood.
"The people moved toward the government building, the children threw stones, the Americans started firing," another witness, Marwan Mohammed, 50, told AFP.
According to a third witness, Abdulrahman Ali, 49, the US soldiers opened fire when they saw the crowd running at the government building.
An AFP journalist saw a wrecked car in the square and ambulances ferrying wounded people to hospital, while a US aircraft flew over the northern city at low altitude.
A doctor at the city hospital, Ayad al-Ramadhani said: "There are perhaps 100 wounded and 10 to 12 dead."
The process of finding a new Iraqi leadership after the fall of Iraqi leader Saddam Hussein got underway in Nasiriyah, the first meeting of opposition groups since the launch of the war on March 20, with US officials expected to discuss the process of forming an interim administration.
But the man tipped to become Iraq's next leader, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the US-backed Iraqi National Congress, was not due to attend.
Iraq's leading Shiite Muslim opposition group was also boycotting the talks, amid distrust over the US role and division over who should lead Iraq.
Chalabi, who has insisted he is not a candidate for a post in the interim administration to be run by retired US general Jay Garner, planned to send a representative.
Dozens of representatives from Iraq's fractious mix of ethnic, tribal and opposition groups, including those formerly in exile, were said to be invited although no official list was given.
The New York Times quoted Garner as saying his mission to rebuild Iraq's political structures would be messy and contentious.
His fears appeared justified as the talks in the Shiite bastion sparked a demonstration estimated by journalists to number around 20,000 people, led by religious figures.
"Yes to freedom... Yes to Islam... No to America, No to Saddam," the crowd chanted as they marched through the centre of Nasiriyah.
The Pentagon meanwhile said it was not yet ready to declare victory after nearly four weeks of war, but US commanders expressed hope the main stage of hostilities was over with the fall of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit on Monday.
The commander of a 16,000-strong Iraqi military unit surrendered control of an area of western Iraq extending to the Syrian border, after US central command said it was continuing to consolidate its position.
US officials switched their focus to neighbouring Syria, alleging Damascus has been developing weapons of mass destruction, prompting appeals for calm from the United Nations and Arab and European governments.
US officials have accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of state terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction and of harbouring fugitive Iraqi officials.
"We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward," US Secretary of State Colin Powell said.
White House spokesman Ari Fleischer branded Syria a terrorist state, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed Syria had carried out a chemical weapons test "over the past 12, 15 months".
Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon joined the offensive, describing Assad as "dangerous," and urging Washington to put "very heavy ... political and economic pressure" on Syria.
The Syrian government hit back on Tuesday, condemning "the threatening language and the baseless accusations levelled by certain American officials against Syria with the aim of striking a blow at its firm position, influence its decisions and it commitment to international legitimacy."
Syria's ambassador to the United Nations also denied the allegations, accusing Washington of double standards over its support for Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East.
"We don't have weapons of mass destruction," Rostom al-Zoubi said in an interview with CNN. "It is Israel, which has a big arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."
European Union foreign ministers have urged Washington to tone down its rhetoric, while the Arab League and Egypt have also condemned the accusations.
UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned such statements could destabilize the whole Middle East.
The formal surrender by the commander of 16,000 Iraqi army troops who controlled the vast area along the Syrian border marked another dramatic step toward the end of the war.
"I am ready to help. Thank you for liberating Iraq and making it stable," Iraqi General Mohammed Jarawi told US Colonel Curtis Potts after signing the surrender.
A scaledown of the 300,000-strong US force deployed in the region was also already underway.
Two US aircraft carriers -- the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation -- were due to head home from the Gulf as early as this week. More than 1,000 US soldiers were also due to start leaving Turkey Tuesday, local officials said.
But life in Baghdad remained far from normal six days after US troops entered. Most shops remained closed, and many parts of the city still lacked water or electricity.
And US forces tried for the first time Tuesday to prevent the media from covering a third day of anti-US protests outside the hotel housing a US operations base in central Baghdad.
Copyright 2003 AFP