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Misunderstandings Over Pay Erupt in Clashes in 3 Iraqi Cities

October 05, 2003|Tyler Marshall and Alissa Rubin | Times Staff Writers

BAGHDAD — Two members of Iraq's former army were killed and scores were injured Saturday when clashes broke out in three cities between occupation troops and ex-conscripts desperate after long hours of waiting for pay.

The unrest occurred on a day of military celebration as the first unit of the nation's new army graduated from basic training.

The day's events, which saw the former conscripts clash with troops and Iraqi police in Baghdad, Basra and the central city of Hillah, symbolize the country's uncertain steps toward democratic self-rule: a journey containing hopeful signs of progress matched with setbacks.

At a dusty military camp near the town of Kirkush, northeast of Baghdad, senior U.S. civil administrator L. Paul Bremer III, Iraqi Governing Council President Iyad Allawi and other dignitaries presided over the birth of the country's new defense force: 670 soldiers drawn from all sections of Iraq's ethnic patchwork and molded into a battalion over nine weeks of training.

The battalion, which initially will be integrated into the U.S. 4th Infantry Division and carry out security duties, is the first step in building a 40,000-member army capable of defending the country's borders. The next class of more than 1,000 recruits, scheduled to start training today, watched Saturday's ceremony.

"This is a great day for Iraq," Bremer said after reviewing the new unit. "The new Iraqi army will be primarily engaged in defending the country, not oppressing the people."

In Washington, President Bush used the moment to remind Americans that there was progress in the struggle to pacify Iraq.

"The United States is standing with the Iraqi people as they move toward self-government," he said in his weekly radio address. "Across Iraq, our coalition is turning over responsibility to the future leaders of that country."

Senior American officials -- both civilian and military -- hope the new army will be more than just a fighting force. They are betting that bringing together Sunni and Shiite Muslims, Christians and Kurds in the same unit will help erode enmities and misunderstanding that have plagued Iraqi society in the past.

While optimism radiated off the parade grounds near Kirkush, despair exploded into violence elsewhere after tens of thousands of those who had been conscripted into Iraq's old army gathered in nine cities to receive a monthly $40 handout. In Basra, British army Maj. Charles Mayo said one Iraqi former conscriptee was killed after he apparently broke away from a protest and was spotted on a nearby rooftop with a weapon.

Mayo said authorities were still trying to piece together what happened.

The protest appeared to have been triggered by a rumor that Saturday's payments would be the last -- which Mayo said was false.

As the rumor spread, those scheduled to receive payments today began flooding into the area and tempers snapped.

Reports from Hillah were sketchy, though a spokesman for the U.S.-led Coalition Provisional Authority, Charles Heatly, said the level of violence there was lower than in Basra and Baghdad.

The most serious unrest occurred in the capital, where witnesses and emergency room doctors said one Iraqi was killed and many others -- the doctors said at least 20 -- were injured. Heatly said he was unable to confirm the Iraqi death and stated that only four Iraqis and two American soldiers had been injured.

U.S. Army Lt. Col. George Krivo, a military spokesman, said the violence was provoked by former regime loyalists, including members of the Fedayeen Saddam, who mixed with the crowd of 10,000 to 30,000 ex-soldiers.

The loyalists began working the line, he said, telling those waiting that the Americans did not have enough money to pay them all. This sparked a protest that quickly turned violent, he said, as some in the crowd clashed with U.S. soldiers and others turned on the members of the former regime.

"The situation is much more complex than just one side going at another," Krivo said.

Witness accounts differed from that of the American military. The Iraqis said there was provocation on the part of both Americans and Iraqis but that the U.S. soldiers' response was disproportionate.

The situation had become increasingly tense, the witnesses said, with many convinced that it was the last day for them to be paid or to file the necessary forms to receive pay. Violence appears to have broken out almost simultaneously at different places in the crowd.

Hussein Hattem Mahmoud, 28, had been hoping to present his monthly payment to his brother to finish building an addition on the family's home and to get married. Instead, Mahmoud was in Al Yarmouk Hospital's emergency room with two bullets lodged in his right hip.

Mahmoud said the fight started when another member of Iraq's former army tried to cut into the line and a U.S. soldier pulled him out.

"And then the soldier hit him on the head with a piece of steel," Mahmoud said. "I knew he was dead because his brains fell out."

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