FALLUJAH, Iraq – Enraged Iraqis battered journalists and fired guns into the air Saturday as coffins containing their countrymen who died in a friendly fire incident were prepared for burial.
The U.S. military issued an apology for the friendly fire shooting in which nine people were killed, but maintained that coalition troops only fired their guns after being attacked “by unknown forces.”
The victims included eight Iraqis and a Jordanian guard. The shooting also caused extensive damage to a hospital in this city of 200,000 that lies in Iraq’s most troubled region – the so-called Sunni triangle (search).
Meanwhile, in the northern Iraqi city of Mosul (search), three U.S. soldiers were wounded in a rocket propelled grenade attack, the U.S. military said.
In Fallujah (search), the coalition’s apology and explanation did little to quell Iraqi anger. The shooting was the worst case of friendly fire since major hostilities in Iraq were declared over May 1.
"We have had enough of the Americans killing us and then just saying 'Oh, sorry!"' said Salam Mohammed, 60, a Fallujah resident and a relative of some of the victims.
"We want the Americans to leave our country because they have brought us only death," said Taleb Hameed, a 30-year-old schoolteacher. "We are fed up with their apologies. We will continue our resistance."
The eight coffins holding the Iraqi victims were carried into a mosque for religious rites Saturday afternoon before they were handed over to family members for burial. The sound of gunfire rattled throughout Fallujah as mourners discharged their guns into the air.
In an ominous message, Fawzi Namiq (search), the mosque's imam, said through loudspeakers: "Save your bullets for the chests of the enemy."
Some in the crowd outside the mosque chanted: "There is no God but Allah, and America is the enemy of Allah."
In the streets, residents attacked reporters who came to witness the ceremony. A clergyman grabbed a one-armed man and prevented him from shooting at a departing Associated Press Television News car as it sped from the city. A television cameraman was beaten and an Associated Press photographer was hit in the face.
The U.S. military issued an apology for the shooting and said an investigation had begun. However, military spokesman Lt. Col. George Krivo (search) said the Americans only fired after they were "attacked from a truck by unknown forces."
"Coalition forces," he said, "immediately returned fire and the subsequent engagement lasted approximately three hours. Regrettably during the incident extensive damage was done to the (Jordanian) hospital and several security personnel were killed, including eight Iraqis and one Jordanian national."
The military, he said, wished "to express our deepest regret for this incident to the families who have lost loved ones and express our sincerest condolences."
Meanwhile, Secretary of State Colin Powell (search) arrived in Kuwait early Sunday, ahead of a trip to Iraq, where he will become the highest-ranking U.S. official to visit the country since the war.
Powell has said the huge U.S. investment in Iraq in lives and money would be at risk if a transfer of authority from American control to Iraqi control took place too soon.
"You have to have a government that is not only there with the doors open, but has to be functioning. ... in a way that people will have confidence in it. The worst thing one can do is to set them up for failure," Powell said earlier.
The shootout began in the early-morning hours Friday as several Iraqi police vehicles approached a U.S. checkpoint near the Jordanian military hospital here.
Iraqi policemen who survived recounted from their hospital beds Saturday how they begged the American soldiers to stop shooting, screaming in Arabic and English that they were police. The Americans kept firing volley after volley, they said. The fusillade raged for a half hour as more men died and others groaned in pain from their wounds, they said.
At the Fallujah General Hospital, policeman Alaa Hashem, 22, recounted how the bodies of two colleagues fell on him, something he said may have saved his life.
Hashem was in a pickup truck with 10 other policemen when their headquarters radioed them. They were ordered to provide backup to policemen traveling in another pickup and a sedan. The two vehicles were pursuing a white BMW suspected of involvement in robberies on the road between Baghdad and the Jordanian border.
"The BMW got away before we could join the chase," said Hashem, who sustained injuries to his left thigh and back. "When the two cars turned around to head back to Fallujah, we joined them and we led the way back when we suddenly came under fire."
Hashem said he heard the Americans shout "stop!" but his car veered off the road. For the next 30 minutes, he said, the Americans kept firing at the total of 25 policemen in the three vehicles.
"We shouted and shouted that we are from the police, but they kept firing from all directions. It was like an ambush," he said.
Another injured policeman, Assem Mohammed, 23, gave an account that corroborated Hashem's story except he did not recall hearing the Americans shout "stop."
"We carry out our duty and that's what we get?" said Mohammed, who was shot in his right leg.
Relations between Fallujah's residents and U.S. forces in the area have been on a knife's edge since shortly after the city was captured in April. Friday's killings were certain to inflame smoldering hatred of the American occupation.
For the rest of Iraq, the incident was likely to stoke resentment of U.S. troops already seen by some as trigger-happy.
Fallujah is part of the so-called Sunni triangle — a vast swath of land astride the Tigris and the Euphrates west and north of Baghdad — where the mainly Sunni Muslim population gave deposed dictator Saddam Hussein his strongest base of support during his 23-year rule.
U.S. troops in the city came under almost daily attack for two months after a late April incident when soldiers opened fire on protesters, killing 18 and wounding 78. The Americans said they were fired at first.
The Americans pulled out of their permanent positions in the city in mid-July, leaving the local police in charge of security. The move dramatically reduced the number of attacks inside the city, but resentment of the Americans continued to simmer.
U.S. troops who had been directing reconstruction and other projects from the Fallujah mayor's office in the heart of the city were not there Saturday. Police at the mayor's office said the Americans' absence was understandable given Friday's events.
Nearby, a black banner was strung across the front of the one-story headquarters of the Fallujah Protection Force, a 100-man, U.S.-trained force to which the eight dead policemen belonged. The banner carried the names of the eight and declared: "The Fallujah Protection Force mourns the martyrdom of its members who have been killed at the hands of American forces."
The Associated Press contributed to this report.