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Police Open Fire to Break Up Iraqi Jobless Protest
Published on Wednesday, October 1, 2003 by Reuters
Police Open Fire to Break Up Iraqi Jobless Protest
by Andrew Gray
 

BAGHDAD - Police opened fire on Wednesday to break up crowds of angry jobless Iraqis -- including former soldiers -- demonstrating in Baghdad and Mosul as frustration at the country's economic woes boiled over.

In another of the virtually daily attacks on occupying forces, a female U.S. soldier was killed and three of her colleagues were wounded by a bomb near a former palace of ousted leader Saddam Hussein used by the U.S. military as an army base.


An Iraqi man throws a stone towards a blazing Iraqi police car after a demonstration by unemployed workers demanding jobs in the country's new protection force turned violent in central Baghdad, October 1, 2003. Police opened fire over the heads of the protesters, who burned two vehicles. Photo by Serwan Azez/Reuters

The violence formed an uneasy backdrop to the start of the first school year since the fall of Saddam in April.

The occupying powers are keen to present the return to school as a step toward normal life, although many lack textbooks and equipment.

The volatility of postwar Iraq has helped keep the political spotlight on the decision by President Bush and British Prime Minister Tony Blair to go to war despite strong opposition from many countries, including traditional allies.

Opponents of the war have also called on the occupiers to hand power quickly to local leaders. In a small step toward the goal of self-rule, a committee of Iraqis tasked with presenting options on how a new constitution should be drawn up submitted its report to the U.S.-appointed Governing Council.

The U.S. soldier killed in Tikrit, Saddam's hometown, was the 82nd to die from hostile fire since Bush declared major combat in Iraq over on May 1, Pentagon figures showed.

The remote-controlled bomb exploded 300 yards from the base as a military convoy passed by, the Army said.

FLAMES AND SMOKE IN CENTRAL BAGHDAD

In central Baghdad, dozens of protesters looking for work at a U.S.-backed local security force hurled stones at the building. Flames and black smoke poured from a police car and a civilian vehicle while gunfire echoed around the area.

Members of a crowd of several thousand threw stones at an employment office in the northern city of Mosul. Some chanted support for Saddam.

"I need a salary now -- I've been out of work since the war," said Ayid Khalid, 24, a former builder in the northern city.

Police and security guards fired shots in the air and the crowd broke up.

At the Baghdad protest near a hotel where Western reporters and other foreign workers are based, police fired automatic rifles and pistols as demonstrators took cover behind buildings.

"We didn't shoot at the beginning. We think this is a democracy and they can express their point of view. But then they started firing," policeman Falah Hassan said at the scene. He said several people were wounded.

Protesters said they had come repeatedly to the office of a force set up to guard state property to look for work, but with little result.

"Most of us were soldiers and then they disbanded the army and all the soldiers became jobless," one man said. "We've filled out forms and two months later, still no result."

The U.S.-led administration running Iraq disbanded the old Iraqi army, viewing the force as a tool of the deposed Baath party. The first soldiers for a new army are due to graduate from a training course in the next few days.

WILL TAKE TIME TO UNDO DAMAGE

The administration says it is working hard on the economy, making foreign investment easier and employing tens of thousands of people in reconstruction work. But it says it will take time to undo damage from years of war, mismanagement and sanctions.

"The sad fact is that the unemployment level in this country is extremely high, some estimate as high as 60 percent," said administration spokesman Charles Heatly. "We simply cannot create jobs out of thin air."

A U.S. call for other nations to contribute troops and cash for Iraq has so far met with a cool response.

The European Commission on Wednesday defended its proposed pledge of $234 million to Iraq to the end of 2004, compared to suggestions that Baghdad needs tens of billions of dollars.

External Relations Commissioner Chris Petten told a Brussels news conference Iraq's immediate ability to absorb funds was limited and its minister for public services, power and water was seeking only $1.0-$1.5 billion for next year.

Iraq's plunge into poverty is reflected in the state of its schools. The occupying authorities say they have renovated about 1,000 schools, but the new term began with many still in disrepair and new textbooks yet to arrive.

This year teachers' salaries are higher and pledges of allegiance to Saddam and the Baath party are off the curriculum. But postwar crime means some parents are reluctant to let their children out of their homes to begin the new era in education.

"The salaries are a good thing," said Hana Hassan, who works at the Dafaf al-Nil school in west Baghdad.

"But I haven't seen any changes yet, apart from the salaries. Lots of students haven't come back, they are scared. And we don't have books."

Copyright © 2003 Reuters Ltd

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