FALLUJAH, Iraq—U.S. soldiers opened fire on angry Iraqi demonstrators who were pelting them with shoes and stones Wednesday, killing at least two and bringing the toll to 15 dead and 89 wounded in this week's anti-American protests in this city west of Baghdad.
The shootings came as Secretary of Defense Donald Rumsfeld made a triumphant tour of Baghdad, becoming the first top-level U.S. official to visit the capital since it fell three weeks ago.
"You rescued a nation, you liberated a people, you deposed a cruel dictator," he told U.S. troops who sat atop helicopters, rocket launchers, artillery and tanks inside a hangar at Baghdad's international airport.
It was a stark contrast to the scene in Fallujah, where Americans hunkered down against hundreds of protesters angrily demanding their departure as a U.S. officer met with the city's self-appointed mayor to hear him demand that the Americans prosecute soldiers who fired into the crowd.
"We don't accept American troops, we don't accept American occupation," throngs of Iraqis chanted outside.
"Yes, yes for Islam; No to America, No to Saddam," they also chanted. A local imam, or prayer leader, led the chants.
Trouble broke out in Fallujah over the weekend when, according to U.S. intelligence officers, gunmen killed a man who had been cooperating with U.S. forces.
Then Monday night, protests erupted outside a school that was being used as a barracks for U.S. soldiers. Soldiers said there were shots from the crowd, so they fired back, killing at least 13 Iraqis and wounding 75 others. Iraqis said Americans were the only ones firing.
Wednesday's shootings took place as about 1,000 Iraqis were protesting the Monday killings outside a Baath Party building being used as a U.S. headquarters.
When a six-vehicle convoy of U.S. Humvees and trucks roared up, the crowd began pelting them with shoes and stones. U.S. troops said someone shot at the convoy, a claim demonstrators disputed, and the Americans opened fire.
Apache helicopters hovered overhead during the melee but did not fire, both sides agree.
Lt. Col. Tobin Green of the 3rd Armored Cavalry Regiment said the shootings were the result of "the evildoers deliberately placing at risk all of the good civilians."
"These are deliberate actions by the enemy to use the population as cover," he said.
Green said the troops who fired were members of the 101st Airborne Division, which he said was being rotated out of the city.
Army intelligence officers, searching for an explanation for the violence in Fallujah, described the city of about 200,000 as a stronghold of sympathy for Saddam Hussein and a possible hideout for Saddam loyalists.
The city, about 30 miles west of Baghdad, is home to an industrial complex once suspected of manufacturing mustard gas. It was bombed both during the first Gulf War in 1991 and again in March when jet fighters targeted a Republican Guard post there.
Police lieutenant Laith Ayad Abed said that American troops did not arrive in Fallujah until about 10 days after Baghdad fell. During that time, Fallujah residents seized many weapons abandoned by the Iraqi army, including assault rifles, rocket-propelled grenades, armor-piercing rockets called SPG-9s, as well as Russian-made landmines, 82 mm machine guns and cannons.
He said he did not doubt that residents would use them against Americans. "There were many people killed," he said, "and they have to avenge their deaths."
Fallujah's mayor, who said he was "elected" at a meeting of the city's elders before the Americans arrived in town, said he, too, would expect people to fight if the U.S. troops remained in the city.
"Muslims don't care about death. If necessary we will fight," said Taha Bidawi al Alwani.
Alwani also accused the U.S. forces of "taunting the Iraqi people" by squatting in schools and government buildings and blocking access to mosques.
"The people have the right to express themselves," Alwani said, sprinkling his comments with the word "occupation."
In Baghdad, Rumsfeld stepped out of the back hatch of a military C-130 cargo plane about noon at what used to be known as Saddam International Airport after a flight from Basra, where he had sipped tea with a British general. He was greeted by Gen. William Wallace, commanding general of the U.S. Army's V Corps.
He paused to shake a few hands and pose for photographs with excited soldiers before getting into an armored Humvee.
His 15-vehicle convoy, including a large security detail, then drove into Baghdad for a tour of a power plant. Upon his return to the airport, Rumsfeld strode up to the stage and took the podium.
"What a sight!" he exclaimed, to loud applause.
He took a few dig at critics of the war, ranging from those who predicted that an American war in Iraq would descend into a quagmire to Iraq's former information minister, who had insisted American forces had been soundly defeated even as U.S. tanks were entering the capital.
"I have to admit, I'm surprised to see you here," Rumsfeld told the troops. "The world was told there were no Americans in Baghdad. Over and over."
But Rumsfeld acknowledged that much remains to be done. He said the remnants of Saddam's regime "have to be removed from every corner" and many of its former leaders still have to be found. Terrorist networks in the country have to be eliminated, and Iraqis still need American military help in restoring their basic services, security and stability.
He volunteered to take questions from the soldiers but said he would not attempt to answer when they might be headed home, a question preoccupying men and women who in many cases arrived in the region months before the war began and waited out the diplomatic maneuvering that preceded it.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
GRAPHIC (from KRT Graphics, 202-383-6064): 20030430 Fallujah shooting