War Crimes and Crimes against Humanity

Insurgents or protesters? 18 are killed in clashes with US troops

By Robert Fisk in Baghdad

17 December 2003

While Washington and London were still congratulating themselves on the capture of Saddam Hussein, US troops have shot dead at least 18 Iraqis in the streets of three major cities in the country.

Dramatic videotape from the city of Ramadi 75 miles west of Baghdad showed unarmed supporters of Saddam Hussein being gunned down in semi-darkness as they fled from Americans troops. Eleven of the 18 dead were killed by the Americans in Samarra to the north of Baghdad.

All the killings came during demonstrations by Sunni Muslims against the American seizure of Saddam, protests that started near Samarra on Monday evening. The first demonstrators blocked roads north of Baghdad when armed men appeared alongside civilians who believed - initially - that US forces had arrested one of Saddam's doubles rather than the ex-dictator of Iraq. But their jubilation turned to fury when the Americans opened fire in Samarra a few hours later.

As usual, the American military claimed that all 18 dead were "insurgents" and that US forces had come under fire in all three cities. But this is what they claimed in Samarra just over two weeks ago when they boasted they had shot 54 "terrorists". Journalists investigating the killings concluded then that while US forces in the city had been ambushed while taking currency notes to two banks in the city, the only victims of American gunfire that could be confirmed were nine civilians, one of them a child, another an Iranian pilgrim.

US forces said yesterday that they were ambushed in Samarra again on Monday, this time by guerrillas who released pigeons to signal to comrades that a US patrol was in range. Two gunmen who opened fire on troops with rocket-propelled grenades, the Americans claimed, took cover among children leaving a school. The soldiers, the US authorities said, "suppressed enemy fire and hit no civilian", an odd statement since no one had suggested civilians were wounded. An American company commander in Samarra later said 11 "insurgents" had been killed although he provided no proof. During the last gun battle in the city, not a single guerrilla's body was found.

In Fallujah, the scene of the other mass killing, of five Iraqi men, pro-Saddam demonstrators stormed into the pro-American mayor's office and forced the American-paid policemen inside to flee for their lives. Two Abrams tanks, Bradley troop carriers and hundreds of American troops moved towards the building which is supposed to be controlled by soldiers of the 82nd Airborne. Airborne troops maintain rooftop positions only 200 metres from the mayor's building but there was no indication last night if they participated in the killings.

The Americans were yesterday trying to smother news of the deaths with further statements about the capture of Saddam. After journalists were taken in circumstances of great secrecy to Baghdad airport for "a story you won't be sorry to cover", General Richard Myers, chairman of the US Joint Chiefs of Staff, admitted it would take "some time" before there were any military effects of Saddam's arrest. "When you take this leader, who is (sic) at one time a very popular leader in this region, and you find him in a hole in the ground, that's a pretty powerful statement that you're on the wrong team."

This kind of statement, however, could not obscure the continuing decline in security. In Mosul, for example, a policeman working for the American-organised local Iraqi security forces was killed and another wounded during a pro-Saddam demonstration. Further south, near Saddam's home town of Tikrit, a roadside bomb wounded three American soldiers, two of them seriously. Occupation security documents - which were not publicly released - show there have been 30 attacks on US forces around Baghdad alone in the past 24 hours.

A disturbing new phenomenon in this environment of growing military violence has been the appearance of hooded and masked gunmen - working for the Americans - on road checkpoints north of Baghdad. Five of them now check cars on the Tigris river bridge outside Samarra, apparently fearing their identities will be discovered if their faces are not concealed. They wear militia uniforms and, although they say they are part of the new American-backed "Iraqi Civil Defence Corps", they have neither badges of rank nor unit markings. The same hooded men are now appearing on the streets of Baghdad.