FALLUJAH, Iraq - Angry Iraqis accused US troops yesterday of killing at least 13 people when they fired on protesters in this city west of Baghdad in one of the worst clashes between civilians and American forces in the US-led war on Iraq.
A pool of blood stained the sand yesterday near the elementary school where the shooting occurred Monday night, evidence that US bullets found their mark. But little else was clear about the shooting, with residents and US soldiers offering contradictory accounts.
Local officials and neighbors said that US troops shot without provocation at a peaceful demonstration aimed at getting the soldiers to evacuate the school they had been occupying since Friday, so children could return to classes.
''This was random shooting without justification,'' said city councilman Sabah al-Rawi, 41, pointing out bullet holes in the walls of a home near the school.
But US forces said armed demonstrators infiltrated the crowd and threw rocks, chanted pro-Saddam Hussein slogans, and fired AK-47s at soldiers.
''We shot at the people shooting at us,'' said Lieutenant Wes Davidson, 23, of the 82d Airborne Division's First Battalion.
Monday was Hussein's birthday. Fallujah, about 30 miles west of the capital city, is a conservative Sunni stronghold and home to many loyalists of Hussein's Ba'ath Party.
Even the number of dead and injured remained in dispute yesterday. US troops said they saw seven bodies lying in the road, three of which were not moving. Fallujah hospital director Ahmed Ghanim al-Ali said 13 were killed and at least 75 wounded.
A visit to the hospital found six wounded men. Two local graveyards had five fresh graves of victims from the shooting.
US forces were evacuating the school late yesterday, but Monday's shooting is likely to inflame anti-American feelings.
'' [The Americans] have nothing left with which to love them,'' said Khalil Mutanna, 17, whose father, uncle, mother, and grandmother were all injured, shot in their home facing the school. Another uncle was killed.
The shooting was the third fatal clash between US forces and Iraqi protesters since hostilities in the war ended three weeks ago and soldiers switched from combat to restoring order. Marines opened fire during demonstrations in the northern city of Mosul on April 15. Iraqis said 17 people were killed, and the Marines said they fired in self-defense.
Many Iraqis struggle to accept even the temporary presence of foreign troops. Some also worry that the presence will change a Muslim society based on strict family values.
In Fallujah, certain actions by US troops appear to have been badly misread. One youth who joined Monday's protest said that having US troops posted on the elementary school roof was an insult to local women - because the soldiers could look down into enclosed yards that protect unveiled women from being seen by a stranger.
''We are very conscious of the question of honor,'' said Ahmed Hatam, 21, who was injured in the shooting. ''We consider this an invasion of privacy.''
Interviews with US soldiers, eyewitnesses, and local residents paint a picture of a protest gone awry, although questions remain as to why and at what point. Both sides agree the original point of contention was the US troops' presence in the local school.
Talks to leave the school had been ongoing between soldiers and residents. But resentment swelled into protests on Monday evening, and a crowd of nearly 200 gathered outside another nearby US command post.
The group was ''hostile, throwing rocks, and occasionally firing a number of weapons into the air,'' said Lieutenant Colonel Eric Nantz, of the 82d Airborne Division's First Battalion, adding that demonstrators chanted pro- Hussein slogans.
Nantz gave the following account of what happened:
Soldiers tried to disperse the crowd by reading messages in Arabic over a loudspeaker, then by bringing out armored personnel carriers. But the crowd marched toward the school.
Rocks were thrown and a US soldier was injured. Iraqi guns were fired into the air, and then, at some point, directed at troops on the top floor and roof of the school. US soldiers threw smoke grenades to break up the crowd but were not successful.
Then, as Iraqis with guns leaped out of nearby homes and fired at the troops, US soldiers shot off illuminating rounds and took aim at those with guns in the crowd. ''The engagement was sharp and precise,'' Nantz said. ''They returned fire with those firing at them, and if others were wounded, that is regrettable.''
Soldiers searching neighboring houses Monday found AK-47s, ammunition, sniper rifles, a 9mm pistol, and antiaircraft ammunition.
''That tells me the people across the street were a threat to us in this compound,'' said one US soldier with the unit who asked not to be identified.
Local residents disputed the US military's account.
''They are lying,'' said Muthanna Saleh, from his hospital bed after his right foot was amputated because of the gunshot that struck his heel on Monday evening. ''Nobody had any guns. I wasn't carrying a gun, and I got shot.''
Saleh said the Americans threw a grenade into his driveway when he rushed out to help the injured. The demonstrators were unarmed, he and other residents said, and the only slogans chanted were those praising Allah.
''One of the soldiers with a heavy machine gun just fired at a protester,'' said Rawi. ''Then they were shooting randomly. It was shot to kill. They even threw hand grenades.''
Some residents said that armed protesters, possibly drunk, did mingle with the demonstrators. But they ''shot into the air, yelling `we support you Saddam,''' said Adnan al Timimi, a 20-year-old student. Protesters did not fire at US soldiers, he said.
© Copyright 2003 Globe Newspaper Company.