Troops Fire on Protesters: Report

April 15, 2003

US troops opened fire on a crowd hostile to the new pro-US governor in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul today, killing at least 10 people and injuring as many as 100, witnesses and doctors said. The incident overshadowed the start of US-brokered talks aimed at sketching out a post-Saddam Hussein Iraq and could ignite anti-US sentiment sparked in protests in Baghdad and at the talks in the southern city of Nasiriyah.

Witnesses reported that US troops had fired into a crowd which was becoming increasingly hostile towards the new governor in the northern oil city, Mashaan al-Juburi, as he was making a pro-US speech. "There are perhaps 100 wounded and 10 to 12 dead," Dr Ayad al-Ramadhani said at the city hospital. The Pentagon, meanwhile, said it was not yet prepared to declare victory after nearly four weeks of war on Iraq, but US commanders expressed hope the main stage of hostilities was over with the fall of Saddam's hometown of Tikrit yesterday.

The commander of a 16,000-strong Iraqi military unit surrendered control of an area of western Iraq extending to the Syrian border, after US central command said it was continuing to consolidate its position. US officials switched their focus to Syria, alleging that Damascus had been developing weapons of mass destruction, prompting appeals for calm from the United Nations and Arab and European governments. The US-sponsored meeting in Nasiriyah is the first since the launch of the war on March 20 and was billed as a major step forward in the search for a new Iraqi leadership.

But the man tipped to become Iraq's next leader, Ahmad Chalabi, head of the US-backed Iraqi National Congress, was not due to attend. Iraq's leading Shi'ite Muslim opposition group was also boycotting the talks, amid distrust over the US role and division over who should lead Iraq. Chalabi, who has insisted he is not a candidate for a post in the interim administration to be run by retired US general Jay Garner, planned to send a representative.

Dozens of representatives from Iraq's fractious mix of ethnic, tribal and opposition groups, including those formerly in exile, were said to be invited although no official list was given. The New York Times quoted Garner as saying his mission to rebuild Iraq's political structures would be messy and contentious. His fears appeared justified as the talks in the Shi'ite bastion sparked a demonstration estimated by journalists to number around 20,000 people, led by religious figures.

"Yes to freedom ... Yes to Islam ... No to America, No to Saddam," the crowd chanted in the centre of Nasiriyah. The meeting came against a backdrop of renewed differences across the Atlantic, this time over Syria. US officials have accused the regime of President Bashar al-Assad of state terrorism, developing weapons of mass destruction and harbouring fugitive Iraqi officials.

"We will examine possible measures of a diplomatic, economic or other nature as we move forward," US Secretary of State Colin Powell said. White House spokesman Ari Fleischer branded Syria a terrorist state, while Defence Secretary Donald Rumsfeld claimed Syria had carried out a chemical weapons test "over the past 12, 15 months". Israeli Prime Minister Ariel Sharon joined the offensive, describing Assad as "dangerous," and urging Washington to put "very heavy ... political and economic pressure" on Syria.

But Syria's ambassador to the United Nations denied the allegations, accusing Washington of double standards over its support for Israel, the strongest military power in the Middle East. "We don't have weapons of mass destruction," Rostom al-Zoubi said in an interview with CNN, describing the US charges as "baseless". "It is Israel, which has a big arsenal of weapons of mass destruction."

European Union foreign ministers called on Washington to tone down its rhetoric. "What we need now is to cool off the situation, not to increase the tension, we have enough tensions in the region ... not to create more," EU foreign policy chief Javier Solana said yesterday. The Arab League and the Egyptian government also condemned the accusations, while UN Secretary General Kofi Annan warned that statements directed at Syria could destabilise the whole Middle East. Syria's official media charged that the US allegations were a smokescreen to keep Iraq under occupation.

Pentagon spokeswoman Victoria Clarke told reporters not to expect a US declaration of victory after the capture of Tikrit. But US and British officers said they hoped the city's fall meant the effective end of the war, although there was still no sign of Saddam himself. "I would anticipate that the major combat engagements are over because the major Iraqi units on the ground cease to show coherence," said Major General Stanley McChrystal, vice director of operations of the Joint Staff in Washington.

The surrender of the Iraqi army in the western Iraqi desert marked the latest sign of crumbling Iraqi resistance, with Major Rumi Nielson-Green in Qatar reporting "a quiet day on the military front." "I am ready to help. Thank you for liberating Iraq and making it stable," Iraqi General Mohammed Jarawi told US Colonel Curtis Potts after signing the surrender. "I hope we have a very good friendship with the United States," he said.

A scaledown of the 300,000-strong US force deployed in the region was already underway. Two US aircraft carriers - the USS Kitty Hawk and the USS Constellation - were due to head home from the Gulf as early as this week. More than 1,000 US soldiers were also due to start leaving Turkey today, local officials said. But life in Baghdad remained far from normal six days after US troops entered. Most shops remained closed, and many parts of the city still lacked water or electricity.

And US forces tried for the first time today to prevent the media from covering a third day of anti-US protests by Iraqis outside the hotel housing a US operations base in central Baghdad. Some 200-300 Iraqis gathered outside the Palestine Hotel to express their rage at what they said was the US failure to restore order after the fall of Saddam's regime.

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