Baghdad; Apr. 6, 2004 – The anxiety throughout the Shi'ite neighborhoods of Baghdad was palpable Tuesday following what residents describe as unprovoked attacks against peaceful demonstrators in Shuala and Sadr City.
According to several witnesses, on Monday American occupation forces opened fire on a peaceful demonstration being held in the streets of the Shuala neighborhood of Baghdad.
The demonstrators were expressing their solidarity with revered cleric Muqtada Al-Sadr, an outspoken critic of the US occupation. Al-Sadr was at the time in Kufa, just south of Baghdad, holding a "sit-in" intended to defy American authorities.
The Coalition Provisional Authority (CPA) had threatened to arrest Al-Sadr pursuant to a months-old warrant alleging murder and other serious crimes.
Sheikh Sa'adoun Al-Shemany, a member of the Muqtada Al-Sadr's office in the Shuala, said people ran for cover, and while US forces continued shooting at them, some area residents began returning gunfire to protect themselves. He said the fighters killed several US soldiers and ignited two Humvees as well as another large military vehicle.
"We are awaiting for the people to answer this," said Al-Shemany. "It is a revolution now. The families of the people killed will avenge this. The Americans attacked unarmed people. This is George Bush's democracy, not international democracy. His democracy is from his sickness. All Iraqi people will refuse the occupation now."
Al-Shemany went on to say that one of the main causes for the discontent many Iraqis feel toward the American occupation is due to the American government's appointment of the current Iraqi leaders. He said, "The Americans appoint these leaders here, and these people can never be a member of the Iraqi people, even the Iraqi Governing Council members, because we did not elect them."
"All of the Iraqi people refuse the arresting of Muqtada Al-Sadr. This is the fact, and the American government must know that! If the Americans arrest Sadr, they will open the door of hell upon themselves." --Abbas Ghani
Mundr (last name withheld), an Iraqi man who witnessed the fighting, said a huge force of American military showed up to shut down the demonstration as well as to close Sadr's Shuala office. He said the occupation forces initiated the violence . The demonstration had previously been peaceful, he said. "Now we are like one hand, Sunni and Shia, against the Americans."
Brigadier General Mark Kimmitt stated at a press conference that the US 1st Armored Division had entered the Shuala district to protect three Iraqi police stations which he said were under attack by Al-Sadr's militia, the Mehdi Army.
Young boys at the scene today shouted, "No to America! No to Saddam! No to America!"
Waleed Khaled, a computer engineer working in a photography shop, claimed a US Apache helicopter shot up his store. Standing amidst shattered glass on the floor as children peered through bullet holes in the windows, he stated that US troops were firing wildly in every direction, shooting at people as they ran for cover.
"The Americans closed Al-Hawza newspaper and now this is the reaction," Khaled said. "If the Americans continue coming here and shooting, we will keep fighting them."
Another eyewitness, Abbas Ghani, stated, "All of the Iraqi people refuse the arresting of Muqtada Al-Sadr. This is the fact, and the American government must know that! If the Americans arrest Sadr, they will open the door of hell upon themselves."
When asked how he felt about Al-Sistani calling for non-violence from Iraqis even if fired upon by the U.S. military, he stated, "Sistani's opinion of non-violence will change automatically if Sadr is arrested, because [Al-Sistani] won't be able to control the people."
Witnesses in Sadr City recounted a similar story they say took place Sunday in that Baghdad neighborhood of 1.2 million mostly Shi'ite Iraqis.
Protesters there addressed both the closing of the pro-Al-Sadr newspaper, Al-Hawza, and the charges made by the CPA that Al-Sadr was responsible for last April's murder of Ayatollah Abdul Majid Al Khoei, who was widely believed to be a US sympathizer. Witnesses to the Sadr City incident insisted that US forces opened fire on peaceful demonstrators, entirely unprovoked.
Throughout the last year, incidents involving the use of live fire by Coalition forces against unarmed demonstrators have been reported by witnesses on a regular basis. Mounting evidence, including video footage of such incidents and their aftermaths, suggests the practice is widespread.
The official military statement on the Sadr City fighting blamed intsigation for that incident on Muqtada Al-Sadr's Mehdi Army.
Today Al-Sadr is reported to have moved from Kufa to Najaf, a Shiite stronghold. The CPA continues to call upon Al-Sadr to turn himself in. Meanwhile, a spokesperson representing Al-Sadr read a statement swearing continued defiance.
In an interview for "Good Morning America" on ABC, CPA chief L. Paul Bremer said, "We have problems, there's no hiding that. But basically Iraq is on track to realize the kind of Iraq that Iraqis want and Americans want, which is a democratic Iraq." Bremer and president Bush both continue to insist the scheduled June 30 hand-off of authority to a US-appointed government will take place according to plan.