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U.S. Soldiers Mistakenly Kill 8 Iraqi Officers in Volatile City

September 13, 2003|David Holley and Alissa J. Rubin | Times Staff Writers

FALLOUJA, Iraq — U.S. soldiers killed nine people Friday, including eight Iraqi law enforcement officers, in the worst "friendly fire" incident since the end of major combat operations, further inflaming anti-American sentiment in one of the most tense corners of Iraq.

The pre-dawn shooting erupted as the Iraqis were returning to the city after an unsuccessful pursuit of suspected robbers, said an officer who survived. American troops apparently thought they were threatened and opened fire.

A Jordanian working at a nearby hospital also was killed, local authorities said. Eight people were wounded.

The deaths enraged residents and ignited a wave of wild anti-American rumors, with some people claiming that U.S. forces had lured the policemen into a trap. And instead of furthering the goal of turning more law enforcement over to Iraqis, the incident undermined American efforts to overcome the violence aimed at U.S. troops in the "Sunni Triangle" west and north of Baghdad, a center of support for ousted President Saddam Hussein.

"This pushes people to join the resistance," said Abdula Abdul Janabi, imam at the Saud ibn abi Wakas mosque in Fallouja. "This makes people's hearts boil with fire."

At least two other gun battles took place Friday. A pre-dawn raid by U.S. troops in a residential area of Ramadi, about an hour's drive west of Fallouja, turned into a firefight that left two U.S. soldiers dead and seven wounded. The deaths brought American fatalities in the conflict to 290. Residents told reporters that three Iraqis also were killed. In central Baghdad, police engaged in a shootout with suspected thieves.

Attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces are averaging about 15 a day, Army Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the senior U.S. military commander in Iraq, said this week.

Continued instability and the slow pace of reconstruction are causing increasing concern in Washington. Influential Capitol Hill Republicans are urging the Bush administration to shift responsibility for reconstruction in Iraq from the Defense Department to the State Department. Iraqis said responsibility should be given to them instead.

"The most important thing is to change the wrong policies that are leading Iraq to destruction," said Abdelaziz Hakim, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council and the brother of a recently assassinated Shiite cleric, Ayatollah Mohammed Bakr Hakim.

"The coalition forces should respond to the demands of the nation that the Iraqis themselves should shoulder security responsibilities," he said. "Otherwise, Iraq will become a fertile ground of disgusting terrorism and the occupying forces will be the cause for it to spread in the country."

The shootings -- which came after a spate of recent car bombings and President Bush's acknowledgment to the nation that American engagement in Iraq will be lengthy, expensive and painful -- were the latest serious setback for U.S. efforts in Iraq.

The law officers killed by U.S. troops appeared to be part of a force formed by Fallouja leaders to take responsibility for their own security and soothe friction with the Americans. Fallouja was the site of the first major confrontation between U.S. troops and Iraqi civilians after the fall of Hussein, and tensions in the city have been high ever since.

Fallouja Mayor Taha Badawi Hamid said the deaths were a barrier to "bridge building" between the Iraqis and the Americans.

"These incidents make it worse," he said.

In a frustrated tone, he said that a similar event had occurred two days earlier when a police officer was killed and another wounded on a routine patrol. He said in that case the Americans had apologized and paid compensation.

Sanchez said in an interview that he was still pulling together the facts of the "tragic" incident, and that investigators would try "to figure out where errors may have occurred."

He said the United States was likely to make payments to the families of the victims.

"I'm pretty confident that we'll make sure that we've done the right thing for those families," he said.

Abdul-Jalil Murrawi, an officer injured in the incident, said from his hospital bed that the officers had been pursuing suspected robbers driving a BMW. The suspects escaped and the officers headed back to town in two marked police vehicles and an unmarked pickup truck, he said.

His doctor, Dhia Mahmood Jumaily, later said that Murrawi told him "the American soldiers opened fire without any cause or any warnings."

U.S. forces shot up two of the vehicles as they passed in front of a Jordanian-run hospital slightly more than a mile from Fallouja. The roadside was littered with dozens of spent 40-millimeter cartridges of the type used in guns on U.S. military vehicles. Law enforcement sources said the wounded were six Iraqi police and two security force officers.

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