Iraqis deny US accounts of fierce fight with 'guerrillas'

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The Independent Online

To Ali Abdullah Amin, the accusations and denials that were yesterday flying about the latest battle between the occupiers and occupied of Iraq - the fiercest engagement, some say, since the early days of the US-led invasion - were irrelevant.

He was not interested in whether the American military was telling the truth when it said that its troops had killed 54 "attackers" - shorthand for Iraqi guerrillas who carried out a double ambush against a US convoy in the Sunni town of Samarra on Sunday which turned into a running fire fight.

Nor was he wondering about the denials made by Iraqi hospital officials and policemen, in the face of what the Americans have presented as a crushing defeat for the pro-Saddamists, Baathists, ex-soldiers and other fighters who are violently opposing their presence.

Iraqi officials say only eight people died, including a 71-year-old Iranian pilgrim called Fathollah Hejazi, whose charred passport they were showing to all-comers. The old man had, it seems, come to visit the ancient gold-domed Shi'ite mosque in this once-peaceful town on the banks of the Tigris.

Ali Abdullah Amin was interested in none of these things. What he cared about, as he lay beneath a grubby yellow blanket in his hospital bed, was the pain in his bandaged legs, both of which were seeping blood from bullet wounds, and the hole in the left side of his stomach. "My legs hurt, my legs hurt," the little boy moaned, as he cried in the arms of his 22-year-old cousin, Jamal Karim.

He may also have been wondering about the whereabouts of his father, Abdullah Amin al-Kurdi. Father and son were shot outside a small nearby mosque, a spot now marked by a large congealed pool of blood. Father didn't make it.

Iraqi witnesses were unanimous that Americans were to blame, pointing to a hole in a nearby cemetery wall which looked like the work of a shell fired from an Abrams tank. The US military stuck by its story of the battle, and by its estimation of the Iraqi death toll. Fifty-four Iraqis died, it said, all combatants. Major Gordon Tate, a spokesman at the headquarters of the 4th Infantry Division in Tikrit, insisted the US military was "confident" about its assessment of the "battle damage".

"Soldiers and commanders on the site counted," he told The Independent. "Every commander on the site is responsible for doing battle damage assessment. Part of that includes counting the dead and wounded on both sides."

Ali and his father appear to have slipped through the net. Even though the boy's hospital bed is only 10 minutes away from the US Army's base in Samarra, and although he was easily found by journalists, he does not appear to be part of the "battle damage assessment". Asked about wounded Iraqi civilians, Major Tate said he had no information on the subject.

As occupiers of Iraq, the US is responsible under international law for the safety of the civilians living under its rule. The senior US military commander, Lieutenant-General Ricardo Sanchez, said this weekend that his troops conduct follow-up visits to places where they have been involved in fighting. But Ali's cousin, Jamal Karim, speaking yesterday afternoon, said no US official had been to see him or the injured boy.

Nor, said Samarra's hospital information officer, Sa'id Hassan Ali al-Janabi, had any "coalition" officials come to see any of the others wounded on Sunday. Had they done so, they could have seen his list of the injured - 55 names, including five women. These were, he insisted, all civilians, some with light injuries but a few with wounds so critical that they had been moved to hospitals in Baghdad or Tikrit.

Had the same officials visited Samarra's streets they could also have heard many accounts of the battle that differed greatly from their own.

The US military says the ambushes began at 1.30pm when the 1st Battalion of the 66th Armoured Regiment, accompanied by US military police, came under attack from Iraqis on the east and west sides of Samarra. The guerrillas fired mortars, improvised explosives, rocket-propelled grenades and Kalashnikovs. The Americans replied by firing the 120mm cannon on their Abrams tanks, the smaller 25mm automatic cannon on their Bradley fighting vehicles, and an assortment of smallarms, mainly M-16 rifles and 9mm pistols.

The US military blamed members of Saddam Hussein's fedayeen paramilitary force. This appears to be based in part on the clothing of the dead, although it sounded like the apparel of many young Arabs.

Iraqis in Samarra told a different story. Some of their accounts were easily disprovable but there was consensus that the American troops fired randomly at times, and that there were no uniformed Iraqi fighters in their midst. Several detailed descriptions from Iraqis confirmed that guerrillas were also firing on the Americans, and that there were prolonged fire fights.

One businessman said that it was started when the Iraqis ambushed the Americans on the edge of town. Another, Mothana Mohammed Badie, a 32-year-old shopkeeper - said fighting erupted when US forces arrived to deliver some new Iraqi dinars to a local bank, a view which coincides with the American version.

He said he was in the area, but ran home to his wife and children only to have his house shot up by a volley of .50 bullets from a passing Abrams tank. Shortly afterwards he was joined by his father, Dr Mohammed Badie, the vice-president of Tikrit University.

Dr Badiecalled the fedayeen "terrorists". But, as he stood in his partially wrecked bullet-pocked front room, he appeared close to despair.

"All the people here are fed up and angry," he said. They want the Americans out of town ... They [the Americans] have to respect our feelings and traditions and customs, but we see the opposite. There is something here that is hidden from the American public. They call it 'Tha'ar' - revenge. That means that if anyone kills your friend, or your brother, you have to avenge it by killing an American soldier."

This is, in the clichés of journalism, called the cycle of violence. And the wheel is rotating with ever-increasing speed.