U.S. soldiers killed two Iraqis and wounded at least two others after gunmen ambushed a Bradley fighting vehicle with a rocket-propelled grenade and rifle fire, Army officials and residents said Thursday.
The firefight that started shortly before midnight Wednesday was the latest deadly incident in this town west of Baghdad where the U.S. occupation remains highly unpopular. At least 16 locals were killed here in late April in confrontations with U.S. forces.
The violence in Fallouja comes as U.S. authorities are expected to announce a new program today to get heavy weapons off the streets and disarm militias. A U.S. military official said recent armed confrontations in Baghdad and other central Iraqi cities show that paramilitary units continue to coordinate their resistance to the U.S. and British presence.
"We're likely seeing organized resistance left over from the regime, because they continue to use tactics the regime has used in the past," said the Army official, speaking on condition of anonymity.
Wednesday night's violence began when a rocket-propelled grenade struck one of two Bradleys from the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment patrolling a block off the main road through Fallouja, and a group of gunmen followed up with automatic rifle fire, U.S. soldiers and residents said. No Americans were injured, soldiers said.
Neighbors and doctors described the two slain Iraqis as a man who was to be married Thursday and his father. They were killed when about eight Bradleys arrived after the ambush and one shot into a pickup truck and then crushed it beneath the Bradley's tracked wheels. Residents said the pickup had failed to heed orders to stop.
"A civilian pickup came, and of course the driver had no idea what happened, so the American troops tried to stop him, by saying, 'Stop, stop,' " said Sami Qadouri Kubaissy, who watched from his balcony about 40 feet from the Bradley. "Then after that they shot their guns in this car, and the tank came and drove over his car.... We were afraid that maybe they would discover us and turn their guns toward us."
Soldiers contended that the pickup crashed into them deliberately as they took fire from AK-47 rifles. "They rammed the vehicle, and you don't mess with a 32-ton Bradley, especially after an RPG fire," said Capt. Michael Riedmuller, commander of the Bradley unit, who said two Iraqis were killed. "I believe that we got two snipers."
Several local residents said four people were killed, but only one of the two hospitals in Fallouja said they had received victims. Kathem Jwad Essay, a doctor at Fallouja General Hospital, said two "martyrs" were brought to his hospital, along with two men who were treated for minor shrapnel wounds and released. Fallouja is largely Sunni Muslim, as was former President Saddam Hussein's Baath Party, and a number of its residents remain supportive of the deposed regime. The area has benefited from government factories, and many residents joined Hussein's Republican Guard. The U.S. presence has not been greeted with enthusiasm.
"I don't like this at all, and I hope they'll be gone as soon as possible. To me, it looks like they are greedy, selfish troops," said Mohammed Aouda, who lives around the corner from the site of the firefight. "They started to shoot everything. They got crazy."
U.S. soldiers fired on protesters here April 28 and 30, killing at least 16 and wounding about 78. Iraqis acknowledged that protesters had fired weapons but said no shots were fired at the soldiers. No Americans were injured, but after the April 30 shooting, two grenades were lobbed into a U.S. base, wounding seven.
Several locals warned Thursday of further conflict. "I promise that next time revenge will be much tougher than this. This was nothing," said Rashid Hamid Khather, a 30-year-old mechanic whose now bullet-speckled garage was burned in Wednesday's incident. "This is not democracy. Democracy is not a tank passing between neighbors."
U.S. officials hope that a new weapons policy, to be announced today, will help curb violence.
Coalition officials will declare a two-week amnesty beginning June 1, during which Iraqis can turn in automatic and heavy weapons -- including machine guns and rocket-propelled grenades -- to drop-off points such as police stations without punishment, said an Iraqi political figure involved in security talks with coalition forces.
While Iraqis will reportedly be allowed to keep small guns in their homes for personal protection, military-type weapons will be limited to Iraqis authorized to have them because of their police or military duties.
The militias of the two Iraqi Kurdish groups who control northern Iraq, the Patriotic Union of Kurdistan and the Kurdistan Democratic Party, will be permitted to keep their arms, provided they stay within what used to be called the northern "no-fly" zone, an autonomous Kurdish area that was outside Hussein's reach, the Iraqi political figure said.
Meanwhile Thursday, U.S. forces captured Aziz Saleh Numan, a senior Baath Party leader who is No. 8 on the list of the 55 most-wanted Iraqis. He is the highest-ranking person on the list to be taken into custody so far and is the 25th person on the list in custody, the Pentagon said.
Numan was identified as the party's regional command chairman responsible for west Baghdad. He is also a former governor of Karbala and Najaf, according to the U.S. Central Command.