Iraqi Police fire on Kufa Demonstrators
Peaceful, civilian Shiite demonstrators in Kufa heeding Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani’s call for a march on Najaf (which is just next door to Kufa) were fired on Wednesday afternoon, suffering two killed and five wounded. Apparently the firing came from the Iraqi police. The Australian Herald Sun reports:
‘ Abbas Hamid, 32, told AFP from his hospital bed that the demonstration in support of radical cleric Moqtada al-Sadr began at 4pm outside the Kufa mosque. “We were heading towards Najaf but when we reached the Al-Abassiya bridge, Iraqi police opened fire,” he said. He said the demonstrators had not passed a multinational force position, where witnesses had said the gunfire broke out. ‘
Al-Jazeerah was rather dramatically reporting that the Kufa crowd was fired on by American troops, which appears not to be the case, and the Sadr spokesman they interviewed by telephone gave the impression of rather more casualties and chaos than AFP reports. CNN had footage of the firing, and to be fair it did also look to me like a bigger incident than the print wire services describe.
The motivation for the Iraqi police to fire on the peaceful protesters appears to have been that they believed them actually to be members of the Mahdi Army militia, even if temporararily going about unarmed. (There does not appear to be any reason to believe this charge other than simple prejudice–the footage from AP television clearly shows a peaceful crowd.) Christopher Allbritton is in Najaf and reports an unsuccessful foray to the shrine of Ali, frustrated by heavy American fire and sniping all around it. On his return to the hotel, he and the other journalists were rounded up at gunpoint and taken to see the police chief of Najaf, Ghalib al-Jazairi. He reports what he heard at this weird (“can’t miss it– no, I mean really, you won’t be allowed to miss it”) press conference:
” The Shrine would be stormed tonight, he said, and we would be allowed to get on a bus and go visit it tomorrow to see the damage the Mahdi Army had done to it. The Sistani protesters in Kufa were really Mahdi guys and they had to be killed. Oh, and thank you for coming. A few of us put up a fight, demanding why they couldn’t just invite us down for a presser instead of kidnapping us. Oh, no, the commander said, that must have been a mistake. I just asked them to bring you to me… There was no order to brandish weapons, push journalists around and fire into the air. One cop, a lieutenant, just smiled at us when we pointed our fingers at him and said he was the one leading the raid, yelling and pointing his side arm at us. These are Najaf’s finest. They’re like the old regime, only less disciplined.”
Abdul Hussein al-Obeidi has more on this incident and others in Najaf on Wednesday. He reports that Jazairi “advised” Iraqis not to come to Najaf because it might be dangerous. If Sistani ever gets any practical power in Najaf, I can only imagine that Jazairi’s days in that position are numbered.
The Kufa incident underlines the potential for police/crowd violence (and perhaps US military/ crowd violence) as Sistani’s supporters converge on Najaf.