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Goodwill Suffers During a Pay Protest in Baghdad

Americans yell at and manhandle Iraqis, few or none of whom understand English.

October 06, 2003|Tyler Marshall | Times Staff Writer

BAGHDAD — It was a minor incident, a small blip in the stream of events that are shaping the new, American-controlled Iraq.

But the confrontation that unfolded in central Baghdad on Sunday, pitting a few hundred former Iraqi army conscripts against U.S. military forces and the newly reconstituted Iraqi police, said much about the difficulties Americans face as occupiers of a country many of them barely understand.

By the time the morning-long standoff had ended, the American soldiers had succeeded in preventing violence, but at the cost of something intangible yet vital to the longer-term success of the American involvement in Iraq: goodwill.

There was manhandling of protesters, screaming in English -- a language few, if any, in the crowd understood -- and a shoving match with an Iraqi police captain helping to calm the unruly crowd. In the end, the Americans were left with few new friends.

For The Record
Los Angeles Times Tuesday October 07, 2003 Home Edition Main News Part A Page 2 National Desk 1 inches; 56 words Type of Material: Correction
Iraq protests -- A story Monday in Section A about a Baghdad street protest wrongly attributed information about injuries that occurred at previous such disturbances to coalition military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo. In fact, the estimated number of injured cited in the story came from interviews with those wounded and doctors who had treated them.

"Saddam Hussein is gone, but now it's worse than Saddam Hussein," said Hatim Jasim Khalaf, a 26-year-old former Iraqi army private who said he was making his fifth attempt to collect the $40-a-month payment promised by occupation authorities. "We just want justice. We only want what's rightfully ours."

Like most of those who had gathered along a main road near the disbursement center where ex-soldiers collect their pay, Khalaf had become increasingly frustrated by his inability to receive his stipend. "If there's no pay [soon], we'll use violence," he vowed.

On Saturday, frustration over the same issue triggered rioting in Baghdad and two other cities. Coalition military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said Sunday that three rioters were killed and scores hurt in those disturbances.

The Pentagon on Sunday announced two soldiers' deaths. Its Web site said Spc. James H. Pirtle, 27, of La Mesa, N.M., was killed when a rocket-propelled grenade struck his vehicle Saturday in As Sadiyah. Pfc. Charles M. Simms, 18, of Miami drowned in an accident the day before in Baghdad. A total of 315 American troops have died in the conflict.

Precisely what has ignited the unrest over pay remained unclear. Occupation authorities said more than 320,000 former Iraqi soldiers had received their pay, and blamed former Baathist regime provocateurs for spreading false rumors, including one that the payroll money had run out.

The protesters who gathered Sunday were driven by a different concern: that those responsible for distributing the money had pocketed it themselves. "They make you sign, then they take your money," said Sayeed Hussein, a 24-year-old former Iraqi army private. His eyes welled with rage.

American troops, attempting to move the crowd off a major street, grabbed and pushed the protesters, as one soldier shouted, "Get the

During an hourlong attempt to break up the protest, the American troops apparently did not try to communicate with the demonstrators in their own language, Arabic. One uniformed Arabic speaker who appeared to be working for U.S. forces threatened demonstrators with a billy club.

When Iraqi police Capt. Basim Khamis moved in to stop the translator, a uniformed American turned on the police officer and yelled, "You take care of your people, I'll take care of mine!" He then shoved Khamis backward.

Offended, Khamis shouted back, "I know my people. I will protect my people."

After a few tense moments, the two law enforcement authorities patched up their differences. The gathering broke up when Baghdad's new police chief, Hassan Ali Ubaydi, announced by megaphone that the ex-soldiers' grievances had been passed on to the Interior Ministry and asked them to choose 10 representatives to meet with him today.

Speaking to reporters at a briefing later in the day, Krivo said U.S. forces received cultural sensitivity training and that any reports of abuse would be investigated. He added that 99% of the thousands of U.S. military patrols carried out in Iraq have come off peacefully, with friendly contact with locals.

Civilian authority spokesman Charles Heatly said, "Remember, no one before last April even dared raise a hand against the authorities."

That fact seemed to elicit little sympathy among Sunday's demonstrators, who after hours of facing the U.S. soldiers began chanting in Arabic, "America, no! America, no!"

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