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AFTER THE WAR

As Violence Persists, Rumsfeld Visits Iraq

Two more protesters die in a face-off with troops in Fallouja. Defense secretary tours capital.

May 01, 2003|Laura King | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — Defense Secretary Donald H. Rumsfeld, making a triumphal visit to Iraq on Wednesday, hailed what he called its liberation from a "brutal, vicious regime" and said the United States has no intention of "owning or running" the country.

But in a sign of continuing popular discontent over the U.S. military presence in Iraq, violence erupted for the second time in three days in the town of Fallouja, a onetime stronghold of Saddam Hussein's Baath Party.

U.S. troops shot dead two Iraqi men and wounded 18 others, according to hospital and municipal officials, during a march Wednesday to protest the shooting deaths of 14 Iraqis and the wounding of dozens of others in a melee that erupted between troops and demonstrators Monday night.

In an effort to speed the formation of a transitional government for Iraq, the leaders of five key former exile groups gathered in Baghdad to discuss how to broaden their coalition to include groups that stayed in Iraq during Hussein's regime.

Although all five groups are close to the Americans and some have received extensive support from Washington, no U.S. representative was at the meeting -- a signal of the nascent coalition's effort to have a more independent profile in order to gain credibility with more Iraqis.

Rumsfeld, who is in the midst of a weeklong tour of Persian Gulf countries to consult with regional leaders and discuss planned cuts in the U.S. troop presence in the area, made a brief and unannounced trip to the capital that included visits to onetime touchstones of Hussein's power.

Accompanied by black-clad Special Forces troops who served as his bodyguards, the defense secretary touched down at Baghdad's international airport. At one of Hussein's palaces, he met with retired Army Lt. Gen. Jay Garner, who leads the Americans' transitional civil administration.

"I am delighted to be able to visit Baghdad and your country, and witness the liberation of your country," Rumsfeld said in a taped message broadcast on U.S.-controlled frequencies in the capital.

Earlier, in the southern city of Basra, he thanked British troops for their role in the fighting and in efforts to restore public order and basic services in Iraq.

"A large number of human beings, intelligent and energetic, have been liberated, and they are out from under the heel of a truly brutal, vicious regime," Rumsfeld said.

Despite what U.S. officials have described as a wish to avoid any overtly triumphal displays, Garner expressed his pride at the victory of U.S. forces.

"We ought to be beating our chests every day," he said. "We ought to look in a mirror and get proud and stick out our chests and suck in our bellies and say, 'Damn, we're Americans.' "

But the difficulties and complexities of using combat troops to carry out what has in effect become an extremely large-scale peacekeeping mission were evident in Fallouja, a dusty town that straddles the Euphrates River about 35 miles west of Baghdad.

In the wake of the latest deaths, there were scenes of wrenching sorrow, mingled with displays of fury directed at the small contingent of U.S. soldiers who moved into the town late last week.

At the home of one of the protesters shot dead Wednesday, women slapped themselves with grief, wailing "Oh, God! Oh, God!" as relatives and friends prepared to carry the body of 27-year-old Ghaneim Ahmed, a clerical student, to the forlorn-looking town cemetery.

"We will have our revenge on America for this," vowed one of the mourners, a bearded man in his 30s clad in a white skullcap.

The two sides gave widely divergent accounts of Wednesday's confrontation, as they had done after Monday night's shootings.

The trouble began about 10:30 a.m. as demonstrators held what they said was a peaceful march that took them past a compound, the former local Baath Party headquarters, that has been commandeered and fortified by U.S. troops. A passing U.S. military convoy, they said, then fired on the crowd without provocation.

"They just started shooting people," Khazal Abdel Hadi, 44 and unemployed, said from his hospital bed, grimacing in pain from a gunshot wound in his left leg. "We had an agreement that we could hold a peaceful protest -- we just wanted to tell them to get out of the center of the city."

He and other witnesses insisted that they had seen no gunmen in the crowd.

The soldiers at the compound, however, said the passing U.S. convoy had come under fire from a gunman taking cover amid the demonstrators.

"We identified the person who had the weapon -- we saw him take aim and fire," said Capt. Mike Riedmuller of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment's 2nd Squadron, which was holding the compound.

"One of my soldiers fired a warning shot because he could not be assured of a clean shot without injuring people other than the gunman," he said. "The convoy that was being fired on returned fire."

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