At least 10 dead as US soldiers fire on school protest

By Phil Reeves in Fallujah, Iraq

The Independent
30 April 2003

The scene was of a messy kind the Pentagon's publicists had dearly hoped to avoid. Large patches of congealed blood. Discarded shoes scattered in terror. Angry Iraqi neighbours and wailing relatives, recounting a tale of the random killing of young men whose only crime was to demand that their new, heavily armed masters leave the neighbourhood.

The troubles plaguing the American and British occupation of Iraq deepened after US troops opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators.

Iraqi doctors and city officials say that 13 people were killed and many more injured. The US military speaks of up to 10 deaths but admits that it is "possible" the figure is 13.

The people of Fallujah, a dust-blown Sunni Muslim trucking town 35 miles west of Baghdad, will always view the events of Monday night as an atrocity not to be forgotten.

Some time after 9pm, a crowd of about 100 demonstrators descended on a school that had been taken over by about 100 American soldiers four days earlier.

The ostensible reason for the march, which was unusually late in the evening, was to demand that the troops depart because the people wanted the school to reopen. But there were also wild rumours going around that the Americans had been peering into their homes – and at their women – with night-vision goggles.

The marchers were carrying a solitary banner of Saddam Hussein, a gesture to the fact that it was the dictator's birthday but also a tactic chosen partly to annoy the Americans. Some Iraqis, both sides agree, were firing in the air in celebration. Iraqi witnesses say that the US troops were frightened and opened fire.

The Americans say they were fired on and acted in self-defence against a crowd in which 25 people had guns. But there are strong doubts about the US version – and an absence of evidence. Ahmed al-Essawi, aged 15, who was shot in his arm and leg, says he did not see any guns. "All of us were trying to run away. They shot at us directly. The soldiers were very scared. There were no warning shots, and I heard no announcements on the loudspeakers." Ahmed Karim, a 21-year-old blacksmith who was shot in the thigh, did not see any guns either. "We were shouting 'there's no god but Allah'. We arrived at the school building and were hoping to talk to the soldiers when they began shooting at us randomly. I think they knew we were unarmed but wanted a show of force to stop us from demonstrating."

No guns were seen in the crowd by Hussein Ali Awari, a labourer who lives across the road from the protest. He says that when the shooting started, panic-stricken demonstrators, some injured, piled into his courtyard for cover, including a boy of about 17 who died later.

"It was terrible," he said. "I think the Americans were so scared of us Iraqis that they were willing to do anything. There were injured people crying out for help outside the house. When I tried to go out to help them, they told me to get back inside or they'd shoot."

No weapons were seen by Hassan, a student aged 19 who refused to reveal his full name. "We had one picture of Saddam, only one. There were quite a lot of us – about 200. We were not armed and nothing was thrown. There had been some shooting in the air in the vicinity, but that was a long way off. I don't know why the Americans started shooting. When they began to fire, we just ran."

These people may be lying, but the hard evidence at the scene must also be considered.

The Americans troops were from the 84th Airborne Division, deployed late last week to stop looting and a roaring local arms trade. They fired at the crowd from Fallujah's al-Kaat primary and secondary school, a pale-yellow utilitarian concrete building of two storeys and about the length of seven terraced houses. They were shooting from the front of the upper floor and from the roof at people across the road – a distance of several dozen yards.

According to Lt-Col Eric Nantz, the troops were being shot at and stones had been thrown. They tried to disperse the crowd with loudspeaker warnings but in vain, he said. Under threat, they fired back.

Yet there are no bullet holes visible at the front of the school building or tell-tale marks of a firefight. The place is unmarked. By contrast, the houses opposite – numbers 5, 7, 9, and 13 – are punctured with machine-gun fire, which tore away lumps of concrete the size of a hand and punched holes as deep as the length of a ballpoint pen. Asked to explain the absence of bullet holes, Lt-Col Nantz said that the Iraqi fire had gone over the soldiers' heads. We were taken to see two bullet holes in an upper window and some marks on a wall, but they were on another side of the school building.

There are other troubling questions. Lt-Col Nantz said that the troops had been fired on from a house across the road. Several light machineguns were produced, which the Americans said were found at the scene. If true, this was an Iraqi suicide mission – anyone attacking the post from a fixed position within 40 yards would have had no chance of survival.

The American claim that there were 25 guns in the crowd would also indicate that the demonstrators had had a death wish or were stupid. Iraqis have learnt in the past few weeks that if they fail to stop their cars quickly enough at an American-manned checkpoint, they may well be shot.

To walk, at night, up to a US army outpost brandishing guns and chanting anti-American slogans would have been an act of madness.

But these facts – all of which point to a frightened, panicked and trigger-happy force that opened fire because it did not feel its base was safe – matter less than the larger political implications of the event.

The occupiers of Iraq are running into trouble. Last week, six Iraqis were shot dead in Mosul by US troops. Every such incident deepens the bedrock of Iraqi public sympathy for armed resistance against the troops.

In the past week, American forces have been shot at daily. A deliberate attack on a US arms dump in Baghdad led to the explosion that killed at least 10 people, and stone-throwing at troops – a highly symbolic form of "resistance" borrowed from the Palestinians – has become commonplace.

The language of the American forces is beginning to sound grimly familiar. They complain of having to shoot at stone-throwers because the Iraqi youths might – and did on one occasion in Ramadi three days ago, they allege – throw grenades as well as stones.

They describe people firing at them from within crowds of civilian demonstrators. They live in dread of car bombs and suicide attackers. They say that the majority of Iraqis like them but add that there is a small element lodged in the fabric of Iraqi society that is determined to make trouble.

This has all been said before, by their allies, the Israelis, several hundred miles to the west. And no one has yet found a solution. Leaving the scene of this mayhem yesterday, one person's words were unforgettable. They came, not from a protester or a gunman, but from the headmaster of the school where this bloodshed happened. Many of his students were among the protesters.

When he heard of the shootings, he rushed to the hospital to give blood. He is a quietly spoken man, but cloudy-eyed with anger and grief. Now, he said calmly, he is willing to die as a "martyr" to take his revenge against the Americans.