US sacks police chief and sends more troops to restore calm in oil town

US forces have sacked the police chief in the northern Iraqi town of Baiji and sent in troops to restore calm.

Soldiers were guarding the office of the mayor and the local police headquarters, which were gutted by fire after protests. Bradley fighting vehicles and several tanks were also stationed in the town.

Over the weekend, about 300 US-appointed Iraqi police fled the town for an American base near by. They rejected orders from US officers to return to Baiji, saying that they would be killed.

There was heavy fighting in the town early yesterday with residents reporting that rocket-propelled grenades and light machine guns were being used. The US appeared to be treading carefully in order not to provoke local people into a prolonged feud with American forces. In order to meet some of the protesters' demands, the US command fired Ismail al-Jabouri, the police chief. He was accused by local people of seizing their cars on the grounds that they had belonged to the government during the old regime.

Part of the problem in Baiji is that the US-appointed police are mostly untrained men from the Jabouri tribe who come from villages outside the city and have no local links. The US command in the region has re-appointed Hamid Al-Qaisi as police chief. He was elected by local tribal leaders after the fall of Saddam Hussein.

The protests started early on Saturday morning when police attacked a crowd shouting pro-Saddam slogans and holding up pictures of the former Iraqi leader. Locals said that police shot four men. This fuelled protesters' anger, and a crowd gathered outside the mayor's office and set it on fire. They also set fire to two Turkish trucks claiming that the drivers were smuggling cheap Iraqi fuel to Turkey. According to one report, the protesters were angered by a rumour that the fuel was going to be sold to Israel.

US forces were trying yesterday to play down the uprising, saying that about 200 people of "military age'' had taken part in a demonstration on Sunday outside the mayor's office. But there were at least 1,000 people on the main street of Baiji on Sunday, some holding pictures of Saddam, waiting opposite the police headquarters.

Ashraf al-Qaisi, a former police officer, was reported as saying: "The Americans were mostly firing when they were fired at. Most of the fighting was between the police and the young armed men.''

He said that up to 2,000 young men from Baiji, many of them well-armed, had taken part in the gunbattles. Baiji, which has a population of about 60,000, is 160 miles north of Baghdad. It is economically important because it contains the largest oil refinery in Iraq and is on the main road between Baghdad and the northern capital of Mosul.

¿ The Turkish cabinet decided yesterday to seek parliamentary backing for plans to send peace-keeping troops to Iraq. The United States has requested the back-up.