BAGHDAD, Iraq—U.S. soldiers and Iraqi police clashed with a brick-throwing mob Saturday during a riot at a pay station for former Iraqi soldiers. One man was killed and as many as two dozen were injured.
Meanwhile, a U.S. soldier with the 4th Infantry Division was killed and another wounded late Friday in a rocket-propelled grenade attack in the town of As Sadiyah, northeast of Baghdad, the military reported. Since President Bush declared major combat over in Iraq on May 1, 88 American soldiers have been killed in hostile action.
The riot erupted Saturday around 8:30 a.m. near an old military airfield in Baghdad's wealthy Mansour district on the day that demobilized soldiers were to receive their last monthly stipend, said Lt. Col. Brian McKiernan, commander of the 1st Armored Division's 4-27 Field Artillery.
Rioters set fire to a lookout tower, tore down a fence and overturned a utility trailer belonging to the military, also setting it afire. U.S. troops fired warning shots to disperse the crowd, which McKiernan and other senior officers estimated at 25,000. The mob then spilled into nearby streets, setting an Iraqi police car on fire, ransacking at least two liquor stores and burning tires in the street. Iraqi police exchanged fire with some in the crowd before it dispersed, the sound of gunshots crackling through the air.
During the two-hour melee, U.S. soldiers shot and wounded four men who were treated and detained, said Maj. Scott Patton, operations officer for 4-27 Field Artillery. Ten soldiers were slightly injured, many with cuts, Patton said.
The riot coincided with a graduation ceremony in the northern city of Kirkush for more than 700 soldiers of the new Iraqi Army. They are the first battalion of a force that coalition officials hope will reach 40,000 within two years. Coalition officials, speaking to reporters in Baghdad, blamed the riot on loyalists to the former regime of ousted Iraqi dictator Saddam Hussein who are trying to disrupt progress in the country.
Dr. Sharouk Mohammed, an emergency room doctor at nearby Yarmouk Hospital, where most of the casualties were taken, reported that one Iraqi man suffered a fatal gunshot wound to the head. At least 20 other people were injured, 15 of them with gunshot wounds, Mohammed said.
The incident was the second major clash in the Iraqi capital in less than a week over jobs and unemployment. It underscored that while the ruling Coalition Provisional Authority has made significant progress in restoring normalcy and basic services to Iraq, many hurdles remain, chief among them providing security and jobs to millions of Iraqis who remain out of work and see little hope for improvement.
Iraqis claimed that the violence started when a U.S. soldier struck an elderly man in the neck with a riot-control baton.
"When we saw him beating this old man, there were 20 of us who attacked this soldier," said Adnan Kharakuli, 35, a former lieutenant in the Iraqi special forces. "We broke his leg and took his helmet and put our fingers in one of his eyes."
McKiernan disputed that account.
"That's not true," McKiernan said.
Most of the people in the crowd were peaceful, he and other officers said, but some were clearly bent upon causing trouble. Shots were fired from the crowd, he said.
McKiernan and other officers said U.S. soldiers showed remarkable restraint.
"Look, there were 25,000 people out here, and our soldiers were getting hit with bricks and rocks and everything else, said Patton, the operations officer. "But guess what, we didn't kill any Iraqis and no American soldiers were killed, so that's a good job."
Two hours after the violence had subsided, tensions were still high. Two U.S. armored vehicles sat in the middle of the rubble-strewn boulevard. Soldiers in riot gear stood behind concertina wire, as the crowd, still at several hundred, pressed toward a small gap in the wire where they were searched for weapons before being allowed to pass.
"Get back, back up, it's doing no good to push!" shouted a tall, lanky sergeant, walking along the wire, stopping occasionally to jab his finger at someone. "If you don't like the way we're doing it, then turn around and go back the other way."
Back up the street, Kharakuli, the former Iraqi lieutenant, said many Iraqis, especially ex-soldiers like himself, were becoming fed up with what he called American insults and indignities.
(c) 2003, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.
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