by Phil Reeves – The Independent (London)
FALLUJAH (May 4, 2003) — Nearly a week after troops from the 82nd Airborne Division randomly opened fire on a crowd of demonstrators here, prompting the US military to announce an inquiry, commanders have yet to speak to the doctors who counted the bodies.
Nor, by late yesterday, had US commanders been to the home of a 13-year-old boy who was among the dead, even though it is located less than a mile from the main American base in Fallujah, a conservative Sunni town 35 miles west of Baghdad.
The Americans’ conduct over the Fallujah affair — and their highly implausible version of events — has compounded the anger in Iraq over the killings, in which 13 people died after being hit by a hail of US bullets outside a school which the troops were occupying. It combines all the worst elements of the occupation: panicky troops firing at Iraqis instead of seeking to engage with them or understand their circumstances, then insisting that local people have no cause for anger.
The US military’s case was enshrined in a 290-word statement issued by its Central Command (Centcom) in Qatar the day afterwards, Tuesday, issued when the interest of the world’s media was at its height. This stated that the “parachuters” from the 82nd Airborne Division opened fire in self-defense after being shot at by around 25 armed civilians interspersed among 200 demonstrators and positioned on the neighboring rooftops. It spoke of a “fire-fight.”
Witnesses interviewed by The Independent on Sunday stated that there was some shooting in the air in the general vicinity, but it was nowhere near the crowd, which comprised mostly boys and young men who descended on the school at around 9pm to call for the US troops to leave the premises.
Gunfire in the air is commonplace — and the Fallujah demonstration coincided with Saddam Hussein’s birthday. But there is a consensus among Iraqi witnesses on two issues. There was no fire-fight nor any shooting at the school. And the crowd — although it had one poster of Saddam and may have thrown some stones — had no guns.
The evidence at the scene overwhelmingly supports this. Al-Ka’at primary and secondary school is a yellow concrete building about the length and height of seven terraced houses located in a walled compound. The soldiers fired at people gathered below them. There are no bullet marks on the façade of the school or the perimeter wall in front of it. The top floors of the houses directly opposite, from where the troops say they were fired on, also appear unmarked. Their upper windows are intact.
US Dismisses Civilian Deaths as ‘Allegations’
The day after the bloodbath, US soldiers displayed three guns which they said they had recovered from a home opposite, but this proved nothing. Every other Iraqi home has at least one firearm. Centcom also refused to confirm that the soldiers from the 82nd Airborne who raked the crowd had killed or injured unarmed civilians. Although it conceded that this was possible, it described the deaths of unarmed people as “allegations” and estimated the toll at seven injuries, all people who were armed.
Yet a mile from the US army’s base is the home of 13-year-old Abdul Khader al-Jumaili. The boy had tagged along with the demonstration as it passed by his home, having spotted some of his friends. He was shot in the chest, and died in hospital a few hours later. His house — No 3 Al-Monjazat Street — is easy to find. Dozens of relatives gathered there for three days of mourning amid an atmosphere of quiet anger, grief and indignation.
“The Americans are just lying,” said his father, Abdul Latif al-Jumaili, a clerk. “You can see it for yourself,” he added, showing a photograph of his son. “He was just a boy.”
The affair has angered British Army officials who believe that the US troops lack the vital experience which the British acquired — painfully at first — in Northern Ireland. “Don’t talk to me about the US army,” said one British military source. “Let’s just say that they face a very steep leaning curve.”
The Americans will be hoping that the damage will be repaired once they establish stability and the economy gets going. But they will find no consolation from the signals being sent to them in Fallujah. On Wednesday night, someone fired two grenades into their compound, a former Baath party building, injuring seven soldiers. A banner was hanging from the front gate of the mayor’s office next door: “Sooner or later, US killers, we’ll kick you out.”
Outstanding Cases Still Awaiting an Explanation
The battlefields are littered with the bodies of those who got in the way, were targeted for the wrong reasons, or were the victims of ill intent. Here are some outstanding cases:
The incident: Terry Lloyd, ITN reporter, killed near Basra on 22 March. Cameraman Fred Nerac and translator Hussein Osman are still missing.
What happened: ITN vehicles caught between Iraqis and US forces, though it is not clear who fired first. Strenuous ITN efforts to establish fate of the two missing men, without success. US military appears highly reluctant to co-operate.
Since then: Colin Powell promised Nerac’s wife he would do everything possible, but formal investigation only opened last Monday. Press watchdog Reporters sans Frontières says US shows no interest in a serious inquiry.
The incident: British soldiers killed by US “friendly fire.”
What happened: Worst incident was an attack on clearly marked Scimitar light tanks on 28 March by US A-10 Thunderbolt aircraft in broad daylight, killing one soldier and wounding three.
Since then: Pentagon has withheld all information about the names of the offending pilots and the unit they belonged to. British officials say joint investigation with Americans is “still ongoing”. No details made public.
The incident: An unknown number of Iraqis, including women and children, shot down at US checkpoints by guards afraid of suicide attacks.
What happened: Ten people, including five children, killed outside Najaf on 30 March by high-explosive shell. Commander heard shouting: “You just killed a family because you didn’t fire a warning shot soon enough!”
Since then: US officials defended troops, saying warning shots were ignored. The men did “absolutely the right thing”, General Peter Pace said. Not clear if any further inquiry has taken place.
The incident: Al-Jazeera reporter Tarek Ayoub, Reuters cameraman Taras Protsyuk and Spanish TV cameraman Jose Couso killed as US troops move into Baghdad.
What happened: Al-Jazeera and Abu Dhabi television offices bombed from the air. Reuters man killed by US tank round fired at Palestine Hotel. Al-Jazeera, also hit in Basra and during Afghanistan war, believes it was deliberately targeted; similar accusations made about hotel attack.
Since then: Soldiers said to be responding to hostile fire — eyewitnesses disagree. No other information forthcoming.
The incident: Two unknown Iraqi soldiers apparently shot, execution-style, by vengeful Marine, Gus Covarrubias, after mortar shell exploded near him.
What happened: Covarrubias himself told the story to his local paper in Las Vegas, saying he ordered soldier he believed to have fired the mortar to turn around, then shot him in the back of the head. He then chased and shot a second man.
Since then: Covarrubias interviewed by Naval Criminal Investigative Service, but no decision yet made whether to investigate him for war crimes.
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