In Iraq, gunfire is the only common language

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The Independent Online

United States soldiers may have killed as many as 19 Iraqi civilians in two incidents over the weekend, heightening tensions between local people and the American forces responsible for protecting them during the country's parliamentary elections this month. The police chief of the Sunni Arab town of Samarra was also shot dead yesterday.

United States soldiers may have killed as many as 19 Iraqi civilians in two incidents over the weekend, heightening tensions between local people and the American forces responsible for protecting them during the country's parliamentary elections this month. The police chief of the Sunni Arab town of Samarra was also shot dead yesterday.

In the violent region just south of the capital known as the "triangle of death", US soldiers who were struck by a roadside bomb allegedly opened fire on Iraqi bystanders on Saturday evening, killing at least three civilians and two policemen.

American officials said they had no information on the latest civilian casualties, which took place hours after the military admitted dropping a 500lb bomb on a house in northern Iraq, killing as many as 14 Iraqi civilians. The civilian deaths come just three weeks before parliamentary elections in which Americans are to assist local security forces in protecting Iraqi voters, poll workers and voting venues from Sunni Arab insurgents who say they will disrupt an election that will probably confer power on the long-oppressed Shia majority.

The shadowy nature of the insurgency has made Americans wary of Iraqi civilians. On roads, soldiers smash into civilian vehicles that do not move out of the way of their Humvees and armoured vehicles quickly enough. They aim their weapons menacingly at drivers who get too close and scream profanities at locals who do not understand their commands.

"If a car comes within 10 metres of them here on this street," Mohammad Salah Abdul-Rahman, 28, an unemployed management studies graduate, says as he gestures down an avenue near one of the entrances to the fortified Green Zone, "they're going to shoot at him. It happens a lot because there are a lot of attempts to attack Americans here."

The capital appeared to be mostly quiet yesterday, although at least one US soldier was killed by a roadside bomb. And about seven Ukrainian soldiers serving in Iraq under the US military umbrella were killed in an explosion, apparently the result of an accident. The Ukrainians' deaths are another setback for the US. Ukraine's decision to send 1,600 soldiers to Iraq, where they serve under Polish command in the Shia south, has been deeply unpopular among Ukrainians, whose parliament has voted unanimously to withdraw the contingent. It is the fourth largest foreign contingent after the US, Britain and Poland.

The drive-by shooting of Colonel Mohamed Mudhafir al-Badri, acting police chief for the shrine city of Samarra, also sets back US aims in the city, which last summer was subject to a massive American-led "clearing" operation.

Relations between US authorities and Iraqis have grown increasingly troubled. On the one hand, American officials insist they are winning Iraqi "hearts and minds" by building infrastructure and venturing off their bases to hand out footballs, teddy bears and toothpaste. But as attacks on US forces have escalated, American commanders have loosened the rules of engagement binding their troops, encouraging them to stand and fight.

Many Iraqis, in turn, are terrified by the sight of a US patrol in their neighbourhood: their fear is that soldiers will be hit by a roadside bomb or bulletsand respond by opening fire at anything nearby. After one particularly harrowing day of explosions, soldiers killed a mentally disabled man who failed to heed their commands, said Ali Salman Ali, 37, a shop owner. "The soldiers knew this guy and joked with him all the time. But on this day, they ordered him to stop, and he didn't. So they shot him dead."

* Internal audits conducted by the UN of its oil-for-food programme revealed lapses in its supervision that allowed contractors to overcharge by hundreds of thousands of dollars. Paul Volker, the former US Federal Reserve chairman who led the panel, is to release 400 pages of the audits today.

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