Iraqis shouting pro-Saddam Hussein slogans have staged an uprising in the important oil refining city of Baiji, burning down the mayor's office, fighting with American troops and forcing local police to flee.
About a thousand people, some holding pictures of Saddam Hussein, were in a stand-off with American troops last night, with tanks surrounding the police station in the city, 160 miles north of Baghdad.
Loyalty to the ousted president, who is still being sought by Allied troops, is strong in the Sunni Muslim heartland.
The crowds were chanting: "With our blood, with our spirit, we are ready to die for you Saddam.''
"We were in a big firefight this morning but now we're back in control,'' claimed a US soldier manning a checkpoint on the outskirts of the city. But, despite the presence of American forces, pro-Saddam townspeople appeared to be in command of most streets in Baiji.
The uprising, which started early on Saturday morning, underlines the fragile grip on power held by the occupying US troops, and the local police they have appointed, even in an important centre such as Baiji.
The city lies on the main road between Baghdad and the northern capital city of Mosul. Baiji contains the largest oil refinery in Iraq and is on a main oil pipeline. The uprising was largely spontaneous but was fuelled by hostility to the American occupation and by rumours that Iraqi oil was being smuggled to Israel via Turkey.
According to Majid, a local man who was in the city centre at the time five or six men arrived in a Brazilian-made car and began chanting pro-Saddam slogans.
He said: "A crowd gathered in the market place. Then the police attacked them and [other] people ... and were also shooting. Four people were hit and were lying on the ground.''
Enraged by the shooting, many citizens joined the crowd in attacking the police. The town's police chief, General Ismail Abdullah Jassim, was in any case extremely unpopular according to Rafid, a truck driver who, like many people in Baiji, refused to give his family name for fear of retribution.
He said: "The police chief took all the cars belonging to the government for himself. He became like a president here in Baiji.'' A large crowd then advanced on the office of the mayor of Baiji, Hamid Rajabayef al-Qaissi.
He tried to stop them by saying that the police had overreacted but the crowd refused to accept this and burnt his office.
The fire was put out but scorch marks showed where the flames had consumed the building.
The people of Baiji, 30 miles north of Saddam's home town of Tikrit, are Sunni Muslims. Many of the inhabitants worked in the security forces and administration of the old regime and lost their jobs after the occupation, a predicament that has led to many protests.
After the burning of the mayor's office, most of the police fled, according to local people. American officers at the US base just north of Baiji demanded that the police returned to their posts. They replied that they would be killed if they did.
The Americans threatened to sack the officers, who mostly come from villages outside the city, unless they went back.
The police said they had no bulletproof vests or radios, but later a few patrols did return to Baiji. Local people attacked Turkish trucks passing through the town, leaving two vehicles burnt out.
Turkish truck drivers are a target for local hatred in Baiji because it is believed that they buy fuel cheaply, causing local shortages, and then smuggle it into Turkey to sell at higher prices.
The crowds were particularly enraged, according to one report, by a rumour that the oil being taken by the Turkish truck drivers was to be sold in Israel. But there is no doubt that people in Baiji are more willing to express their support for Saddam Hussein than demonstrators in Ramadi and Fallujah, the Euphrates river towns where there have been repeated attacks on American troops.
The atmosphere in Baiji yesterday evening was still very tense. Iraqi truck drivers said they were frightened of driving through in case they were mistakenly identified as Turkish. "No one is in control. It is anarchy there,'' said one man on the outskirts of the city.
The number of dead and injured is unclear. At one point on the road there was an orange truck which was hit by a rocket, killing the driver, local people said.
A medic at the local hospital, Dr Assaf, said 11 people had been brought in with bullet wounds on Saturday, but he did not know how many casualties were treated yesterday.
"The most seriously injured have all been moved to the main hospital in Tikrit,'' the doctor said.
Last night American troops appeared keen not to provoke further trouble. Although crowds, many holding stones, were still surrounding the main police station.Reuse content