Residents of this conservative, tradition-bound city west of Baghdad charged Tuesday that 14 Iraqis were killed and 75 wounded when U.S. soldiers opened fire on a crowd of protesters in a melee marked by misunderstanding, confusion and seething anger.
More than 24 hours later, the circumstances of the shootings involving members of the U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division were still in dispute. The Americans said they were only defending themselves after Iraqis started shooting at them Monday night and that they could not confirm that U.S. forces had killed anyone. Protesters insisted it was a peaceful, if heated, demonstration, and cited scores of dead and wounded.
Sorting through the various accounts of what occurred is difficult, not only because of the chaos of war, but because of the hatred filling the streets of this city and because of the vast cultural gap that exists between the Iraqis and the Americans. This was Saddam Hussein country, a Sunni Muslim enclave about 60 miles west of the capital that was hostile to U.S. forces long before they ever arrived.
No matter what the truth is, the incident has fanned outrage against the Americans as they try to stabilize the country and win the trust of the Iraqi people -- and cast a spotlight on the difficulties warriors face when they become de facto peacekeepers.
When the Americans rolled into town three days ago, they angered residents when they set up camp at a school, making it impossible for children to resume classes. Residents became even more upset when the soldiers took school desks and piled them in the street as roadblocks.
And when the soldiers stood on the roof of the school, gazing out across the city, neighbors were worried they were spying on the women.
“We will talk to the mayor today and we will try to meet with religious leaders to make sure we understand cultural concerns,” said Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, 39, commander of the 1st Battalion of the 325th Airborne Infantry Regiment.
Publicly, U.S. officers here say that the vast majority of the people in Fallouja are supportive. But privately, soldiers said they have constantly been shot at, stoned and berated. They said the Monday night attack was the last straw.
“We have been sitting here for three days taking fire,” said one soldier. “When they marched down the road and started shooting at the compound, there was nothing left to do but defend ourselves.”
The soldier was clearly shaken -- as was the town.
It was about 10:30 p.m. when a city neighborhood was lighted up by flares and gunfire and screams and blood filled the street. A crowd of about 100 Iraqis had been marching through town when they descended on the school, named the School of the Leader, chanting anti-American slogans.
They had been warned repeatedly over a loudspeaker to disperse. Shots had been fired to scare them away. But they kept coming. Nantz said the soldiers opened fire when bullets started to rain down on the Americans.
“If others were wounded, that is regrettable,” he said. “But that was caused by those who fired at U.S. soldiers in this compound.”
The school is across the street from a row of houses. A 9-year-old boy, Baha Mohammed, was shot in the shoulder in his front yard. On Tuesday, he lay on a cot in Fallouja Hospital, passing in and out of consciousness as his father fanned him with a towel.
“The Americans did this, and for what reason?” said the boy’s father, Mohammed Rabee, 34.
The Salah family lived across the street too. According to witnesses, when the bullets started to fly, panicked protesters tried to get into the Salahs’ courtyard. Muthana Salah, 41, went to open the gate and was hit in the foot by a bullet.
His brother Walid, 40, rushed out to help and was also shot.
Another brother, Osama, 36, tried to push a car into the road to provide cover so he could pull the men away -- and he too went down, shot in the stomach.
Muthana’s wife, Abtisam, 38, ran out to drag her husband to safety, and she too was shot.When it was over, Muthana had lost his right foot, Walid was dead, Osama was in critical condition, and Abtisam had been treated for a gunshot wound.
“They shot me,” Muthana said in a low, raspy voice from his bed. “They shot me and my wife and my brothers.”
Fallouja has been managing itself since the collapse of Hussein’s government. It set up an oversight council of town elders, which selected Taha Alwan, 52, as mayor. It is a community much like others across this country that did not wait for the Americans to show up to restore services and ensure their security. “For our city, for ourselves, we don’t want the Americans to colonize our country or our city,” said Sheik Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, imam at the oldest mosque in the city. “If you want to be objective, yes, it was harmful when Saddam was here. But now, you can see, it is worse.”
By the time U.S. troops arrived, Fallouja’s tribal and religious leaders had become accustomed to the idea that they were in charge.
In other cities where local leaders have tried to exert authority independent of the U.S. military, they have been arrested or threatened with arrest. It is a problem U.S. forces are facing more and more as American administrators move to consolidate their rule and get Iraq up and running again.
U.S. troops in Fallouja tried to work with the mayor, at least at the beginning. In fact, they said the mayor recommended they take up residence in the school complex. At about 7 p.m. Monday, Nantz said, he went to have a meeting with the mayor when gunfire broke out in the market.
Nantz said he left the meeting about 8 p.m. and sent armored vehicles with loudspeakers through the streets warning people to disperse. He and other soldiers said there was a tremendous amount of gunfire, some from the crowd and some from alleys and rooftops throughout town.
One U.S. soldier was hit by rocks and fired two shots from a .50-caliber machine gun into a wall. No one was hurt. The crowd dispersed but then surged again. Eventually the crowd made it to the school, where people began to throw rocks. When gunfire opened up in their direction, the soldiers returned fire, Nantz said.
“The engagement was sharp, precise, then it was complete,” Nantz said.
U.S. soldiers said they later recovered eight weapons on the ground where the protest occurred and a number of spent shell casings from AK-47 assault rifles. They declined to show the weapons or casings to reporters.
That’s the military version. Ahmed Hatim, 21, gives a different account.
He said that after the last prayer of the day, a group of people gathered outside the mosque and began to talk about the indignities the soldiers were heaping on their community.
“Those American soldiers, they have binoculars and they use them to watch the women,” he said.
In an indication of how much distrust the Americans face here, he and others also complained that the soldiers had handed out nude pictures of women to a few children.
He said that the crowd marched through town and that at one point soldiers fired over their heads, but they would not be stopped. He said that when they reached the school, there was no warning at all.
“We wanted to speak with them in a dialogue, in a peaceful way,” he said. “When we reached the school, they opened fire in an indiscriminate way.”
Hatim said a bullet hit him in the thigh. He said he climbed over two walls until someone picked him up and took him to a hospital. He was asked why the crowd continued to surge forward after soldiers fired over their heads.
“It was a provocation,” he said. “We could not stand idle. We have dignity and honor.”
A crowd gathered Tuesday in the street outside the school, where U.S. soldiers were still based. The building’s walls did not appear to have any bullet marks. Soldiers said the broken windows were proof they had been shot at, but neighbors said all schools in Iraq have broken windows.
Houses across the street were pocked by gunfire. Huge holes were blown in the concrete. Children pointed out an orange and white car riddled with bullet holes. Residents said the car belonged to Osama Salah.
Sabah Rawi, head of the Red Crescent Society office in Fallouja and a professor of education at a local university, looked at the car and at the school desks piled in the street and shook his head.
“It is not a question of reconciliation,” he said. “These troops should leave our city.”