12 January 2004
By Patrick Cockburn in Baghdad
It started out as a protest by Iraqi civilians outside city hall, furious that local authorities in the southern city of Amarah had reneged on promises to give them jobs.
By the end of the day, at least five Iraqis were dead, including at least one shot by a British soldier, in the most serious incident involving British troops since the summer.
Who fired the first shot? The Ministry of Defence, which is investigating Saturday's events, will have to explain how a demonstration demanding jobs deteriorated into a shooting match.
The trouble started when Iraqi police believed they came under fire in front of the provincial government offices in Amarah, an impoverished town on the banks of the Tigris.
Police officers opened fire and British troops with armoured vehicles were deployed to support them, according to the Ministry of Defence.
The British troops, in riot gear, also fired after grenades were hurled at them, the ministry said.
According to the Army, five protesters were killed. The local hospital said the toll was six dead and 11 wounded. All the dead were civilians and there were no police or military casualties.
"One, maybe two [of the dead] were possibly killed by British troops," Major Tim Smith, a British Army spokesman, said in Amarah yesterday. "Those troops were firing in self-defence. It was quite clear that a number of objects were thrown at the British troops, possibly grenades. I can assure everybody that they only fired in self-defence."
The Iraqi police, many of them untrained, are prone to resort to firearms quickly if they feel under any kind of threat.
Amarah is a Shia city which was always a centre of resistance to Saddam Hussein and was liberated during the war last year by a force of guerrillas living in the nearby marshes where the Tigris and Euphrates meet. The guerrillas were led by Abdul Karim Mahud, known locally as Abu Hatem, who remains the most powerful political figure in Amarah.
About 12 million Iraqis, 70 per cent of the workforce, were unemployed before the war last year and if anything the number has increased since the fall of Saddam Hussein because of the disbanding of the army and the security forces. There have been demonstrations over unemployment in Baghdad during which protesters have also been shot dead.
Protesters returned to the scene yesterday to hurl stones at the British soldiers and Iraqi police who ringed the city hall. They were led by angry relatives of those killed on Saturday, demanding compensation for their loss.
Accounts of the severity of the violence in Amarah varied, with some witnesses alleging that British soldiers had waded in with batons while others said the British military and Iraqi police had kept a discreet distance away. Demonstrators sent a representative to demand jobs and were reportedly promised 8,000, but they said that such promises had been made before.
The shooting in Amarah over the weekend is the most serious incident involving British troops in southern Iraq, which they control, since six British military policemen were shot to death in Majar al-Kabir, a town a dozen miles south of Amarah, in June. The killings took place when British soldiers tried to patrol the town and search for arms.
Southern Iraq has been much quieter than the central area of the country since the war ended. This is because it is primarily Shia and opposed to Saddam Hussein whose main support came from the Sunni provinces north of Baghdad.
Meanwhile, the US and the interim Iraqi Governing Council suffered a setback when a delegation from the council failed to persuade Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, the most influential Shia cleric in the country, to back a US plan to return sovereignty to Iraq. Ayatollah Sistani is demanding elections for an assembly that will select an interim government to take over sovereignty in June. The US and the council want an assembly to be chosen by caucuses whose membership they will determine. Shia leaders fear the council, many of whose members have little popularity, will fix the membership of the caucuses in their own interests.
© 2003 Independent Digital (UK) Ltd