August 15, 2003


U.S. apologizes for removing flag


Baghdad, Iraq - U.S. occupation forces in Iraq apologized yesterday for provoking an angry protest in Baghdad's biggest Shia Muslim slum after an Army helicopter appeared to remove a religious banner flying from a tower. The incident sparked a demonstration in which troops shot dead an Iraqi who fired a rocket at them.

Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez issued the apology and said the military is investigating a recent spate of accidental killings of Iraqi civilians that are fueling resentment against the U.S.-led occupiers.

Thousands of Iraqis massed in the streets of Baghdad's Sadr City, a vast warren where the helicopter incident took place Wednesday. The craft hovered at the top of a radio antenna tower festooned with flags bearing the names of religious figures and institutions. Witnesses said a soldier reached out of the craft to remove a banner.

"Apparently the helicopter either blew down the flag, or somehow that flag was taken down, and we are taking steps to ensure that that doesn't happen again," Sanchez said. Lt. Col. Christopher Hoffman of the 2nd Armored Cavalry Regiment, which patrols the district, issued a letter in English, apologizing to residents.

"We deeply regret what has happened today. What occurred was a mistake and was not directed against the people of Sadr City," said the letter by Hoffman. "I am personally investigating this incident and will punish those responsible."

The incident ignited a day of anger and fervor in Sadr City, a Shia neighborhood already on edge. Protesters incensed at what they saw as a religious insult poured out of houses and shops.

Soon after the incident, a U.S. patrol encountered protesters and shot into the crowd after a man fired a rocket-propelled grenade at them. Sanchez said the attacker was killed and four others were injured by the U.S. fire.

Sadr City jubilantly welcomed U.S. troops when they arrived in April to overthrow the Saddam Hussein regime, which for decades oppressed Shias. But Wednesday's incident was the latest in a series - many involving the killings of Iraqi civilians - that is leading residents to demand that the Americans leave.

"When the Americans came, we welcomed them and received them," said Jabbar Qassem, 20. "But this is our faith. This flag, it represents our faith. Why would they do this? Now we will allow no American to wander through here."

"We cannot control the situation. It is very tense," said Qais Hadi Khazali, a local imam.

According to Iraq Body Count, a group of western scholars and peace activists, between 6,000 and 7,700 Iraqi civilians have been killed since the Iraq war began, many in raids by U.S. forces or in the fighting between the troops and anti-U.S. guerrillas.

The United States blames forces loyal to deposed president Saddam Hussein for attacks that have killed 60 U.S. soldiers since major combat was declared over May 1, but many Iraqis say heavy-handed U.S. tactics are provoking hostility. Copyright © 2003, Newsday, Inc