BAGHDAD -- The crowd of angry protesters, some hurling stones, was pressing in on the Humvee when suddenly there was the flash of a muzzle and the crack of gunfire. In an instant, the soldier pointed his weapon at the crowd and fired four shots, officials said.
Two protesters were hit. Both died.
Across town, soldiers helping to distribute cooking fuel were trying to keep the Iraqi crowd in order when two gunmen attacked. Two soldiers went down; the assailants escaped. One of the soldiers died.
Baghdad is a big, sprawling city with 5 million people trying to get on with their lives while their country drifts in the uncertainty of a postwar occupation. Shops are open, traffic moves through the streets, children play soccer. But day by day, the anger and frustration of many Iraqis burst through, often without any warning that the rhythm of life is about to be broken, that blood is about to be spilled.
In two parts of Baghdad on Wednesday, three lives were lost, and that was like fuel to the burning anger that is consuming many here, American troops and Iraqi civilians alike.
Hours after the two soldiers were shot, a dozen of their colleagues from the U.S. Army's 1st Armored Division descended on the neighborhood near the crime. They were visibly upset, their colleagues' blood still staining the sidewalk. They barged into homes and searched for weapons, and perhaps killers.
Jabar Jawal was home when the soldiers arrived.
"I have no idea what they are looking for!" Jawal, 33, screamed as the soldiers left his house, near the scene of the shooting. "How can they expect us not to resist and kill them if this is how they behave? My mother is disabled -- why did they make me take her out?"
Emotions are running high, and people are dying.
About 10:30 a.m., more than 1,000 demonstrators descended on the former presidential palace that serves as a headquarters for the U.S.-led military and civil authorities that control Iraq.
The protesters were mostly former noncommissioned officers who had spent their adult lives in the Iraqi military, and they were furious at the decision of chief U.S. administrator L. Paul Bremer III to dissolve the army and deny them their pay and pensions.
The Iraqi army had 400,000 members, each responsible for feeding and caring for an average of five people. They have not received their paychecks in three months.
U.S. military officers responsible for maintaining public order say the blanket decree has been a destabilizing influence. Too many people are angry. Bremer is said to be considering revising his order, but so far he has not, and the people want to get paid.
"We came here to seek our salaries," said Sabah Hussein, 50, a noncommissioned officer who said his salary of about $100 a month supported his wife, eight daughters and two sons.
"We are eating only flour and cooking oil. We don't have adequate nutrition. We don't like to be humiliated."
Swirls of barbed wire blocked the entrance of the palace, and a tank was positioned nearby. The crowd swelled, stopping traffic. Rocks started to fly, bouncing off soldiers.
Protesters and U.S. Army commanders who later came to the scene gave a similar account of events. Some Iraqis attacked official vehicles that were passing through the north gate, banging on them with their fists, smashing windows with rocks.
The crowd pressed in closer. A line of soldiers raised their weapons and fired warning shots, aiming over the protesters' heads, said Maj. John Washburn, the task force operations officer.
Then, he said, a Humvee tried to pull through the crowd, onto the palace grounds.
Washburn said the crowd pressed in on the Humvee, rocks ricocheted off its sides, and the gunner, standing up through an opening in the top of the vehicle, saw the flash, heard the shot.
"The soldier felt threatened," said Col. Richard Douglass, a commander at the scene. "He took appropriate action."
Apparently, what he heard was the soldiers' warning shots, according to officers who were at the scene, who said the incident would be investigated.
The U.S. Central Command issued a release saying that a protester pulled out a weapon, but Washburn and Douglass didn't say that in interviews at the scene.
The soldiers at the gate tried to defuse the situation. They arranged for five representatives of the protesters to meet with an official from the civil administration. That helped, but the crowd merely thinned. Several hundred men chanting "Down, down America!" sat down in the road at the palace gateway.
"Please stay calm," Douglass said. "There is too much noise and activity. You are confusing the soldiers. They don't want to fight with other soldiers."
Douglass was trying to connect, soldier to soldier. But there was too much anger. A U.S. soldier behind him grabbed one of the protesters, threw him down and cuffed his hands with plastic ties. Another soldier screamed profanities at one loud Iraqi.