BAGHDAD, Iraq – American troops fired into the air outside the Oil Ministry to disperse protesters whose complaint focused on a dog, a female employee's handbag, a holy book and the cultural chasm that divides the U.S. occupation from ordinary Iraqis.
At one point, fists and rifle butts flew between U.S. soldiers and ministry employees infuriated over what happened to the employee, but no serious injuries were immediately reported.
The confrontation began when 28-year-old Amal Karim showed up for work Tuesday morning and faced a routine search at the ministry entrance by U.S. soldiers, who have tightly guarded the building since the end of the U.S.-Iraq war last April.
When the Americans told her to submit her bag to a sniff-search by a dog, she refused, saying it held a copy of the Quran (search), Iraqi witnesses later reported.
Devout Iraqis often carry Islam's holy book with them, and Muslims consider dogs to be dirty, disease-spreading animals.
"When she refused, the American soldiers took the Quran out of her bag and threw it to the ground," said one woman, Zaineb Rahim. "Then, the American soldiers handcuffed Amal."
The U.S. military had no reaction to Tuesday's incident specifically. But spokesmen acknowledged that ignorance and misunderstandings still lead to such incidents, despite the efforts of commanders to educate their troops to the cultural differences and sensitivities of this Arab Muslim nation.
After the woman was handcuffed, soldiers and Iraqis began pushing and punching. Americans struck out with rifle butts, and soon about 100 Iraqis had gathered in angry protest outside the huge, modern building on Baghdad's northern edge, leading the Americans to fire shots in the air, the witnesses said.
As the protesters hoisted an Iraqi flag, officers of the tiny, newly formed Iraqi army appeared, trying to ease tensions.
Two helicopters circled the scene, where about 25 U.S. soldiers, with two Humvees and one armored vehicle, were on the routine post.
"We don't want the Americans to search us," said employee Muhaid al-Hayani. "We want the Iraqi police to do the job. We don't want any Americans in the building of our ministry. We want them to leave."
The woman was eventually released and was summoned to the oil minister's office, colleagues reported.
In an example of how the military is trying to avoid cultural misunderstandings, U.S. Command spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo said Monday that units were being advised of the traditions of the fasting month of Ramadan (search), when the sight of U.S. troops eating in public or drinking would be offensive to Muslims.
Ramadan is expected to begin this weekend.