At Least 80 Civilians Die in Iraqi Violence; U.S. Helicopter Fires On Crowd in Baghdad

September 13, 2004 | Washington Post [Page A01]

by Jackie Spinner

BAGHDAD, Sept. 12 — Car bombings, mortar attacks and clashes between insurgents and U.S. and Iraqi security forces killed at least 80 civilians across the country Sunday, Iraqi officials said.

In Baghdad, the scene of some of the most intense fighting in months, at least 27 people were killed and 107 were wounded.

A U.S. military helicopter fired into a crowd of civilians who had surrounded a burning Army armored vehicle in the capital, killing 13 people, said Saad Amili, spokesman for the Health Ministry. Among those killed was a Palestinian journalist reporting from the scene for the Arab satellite network al-Arabiya.

The U.S. military said it was trying to scatter looters who were attempting to make off with ammunition and pieces of the Bradley Fighting Vehicle, which had been hit by a car bomb early in the morning on Haifa Street, a troublesome north-south artery west of the Tigris River.

But witnesses, including a Reuters cameraman who was filming the al-Arabiya journalist when he was shot, disputed that account and said the crowd was peaceful, Reuters reported.

In the video, which was shown on al-Arabiya throughout the day, the journalist, Mazin Tumaisi, 26, can be seen reporting near the burning armored vehicle. It is not clear what the people around it were doing. As the camera moved to the sky to capture the image of two low-flying military helicopters swooping onto the scene, bullets rained down, hitting Tumaisi and the cameraman, Seif Fouad, who was seriously wounded. The camera lens was sprayed with blood, and Tumaisi could be heard saying, “Please help me. I am dying.”

In Ramadi, a city west of Baghdad, 10 people were killed and 40 were wounded, including women and children, when U.S. tanks and helicopters opened fire in a residential district, Abdel Salam Mohamed, a doctor at Ramadi Hospital, told Reuters. The U.S. military had no immediate comment.

[A similar incident was reported in the town of Fallujah, where U.S. forces launched airstrikes early Monday, killing at least seven Iraqis, including women and children, a doctor there said, according to the Reuters news agency.]

Ten people were also killed in Babil and two in Basra, the Health Ministry said, without specifying the circumstances. Independent confirmation could not be made.

Near Hilla, 60 miles south of Baghdad, three Polish soldiers were killed in an ambush and three Iraqi National Guardsmen died in a bombing, according to the Associated Press.

The violence in the capital started as the sun began peeking over the horizon. A steady pounding of mortar shells began striking the fortified compound that houses the interim Iraqi government and the U.S. Embassy. A large plume of black smoke shot into the sky. U.S. authorities said there were no casualties at the compound and did not respond to requests for information about damage.

In a statement posted on a Web site, the militant group Jamaat al-Tawhid and Jihad (Monotheism and Jihad) said it had carried out attacks throughout the country. The group is associated with Abu Musab Zarqawi, a Jordanian accused of having links to al Qaeda and blamed by U.S. officials for other violence in Iraq.

Minutes after those attacks, at 6:45 a.m., U.S. forces began battling insurgents on Haifa Street, which ends at the government compound, formerly known as the Green Zone. For nearly two hours, central Baghdad sounded as if heavy combat had returned to the city, with the steady thud of mortar rounds matched by the booms of return fire.

Maj. Philip Smith, spokesman for the 1st Calvary Division, which is responsible for patrolling Haifa Street, said the helicopters fired on the Bradley after looters swarmed it. The insurgents threw grenades and engaged in small-arms fire with U.S. troops in the area, he said.

“The aircraft was being fired upon,” Smith said, adding that an hour later, the helicopters were given clearance to fire again but did not because they had not positively identified which people were insurgents.

Also in Baghdad, a suicide bomber set off an explosion next to two patrol cars in the Amyria neighborhood, killing two Iraqi police officers and wounding four, 1st Lt. Sudad Fadhil said.

Elsewhere in Iraq, U.S. Marines killed an insurgent and captured seven others after they launched an attack at Abu Ghraib prison, 20 miles west of Baghdad, where more than 2,000 detainees are in U.S. custody.

At 6 a.m., there was a series of mortar fire at the complex, said Lt. Col. Barry Johnson, spokesman for U.S. detention operations in Iraq. About 20 minutes later, U.S. forces spotted three civilian pickup trucks with machine guns on a road near the complex. While fighters in two of the trucks engaged in a firefight with U.S. forces, the third truck sped up and drove through a chain-link gate marking the outer perimeter of the prison. Marines fired on the truck, and it exploded before it reached the main security wall of the complex, Johnson said. No U.S. soldiers or detainees were wounded.

Sunday marked the Muslim holiday of Isra wa al-Miraj, or the night journey and ascension, which celebrates the prophet Muhammad’s travel from Mecca to Jerusalem, ascension to heaven and return to Mecca in the same night. Muslims believe that on this night Muhammad established the current custom of five daily prayers.

At the al-Arabiya office in Baghdad, employees huddled around a television set and cried as they watched the video coverage showing their colleague being killed. A picture of Tumaisi hung on the doors of the office with the inscription, “Martyr Mazin Tumaisi, who was killed by the American forces on September 12th 2004.” Tumaisi’s photograph joined the photographs of two other al-Arabiya correspondents, Ali Khatib and Ali Abdel-Aziz, who were killed by U.S. forces in March.

Laith Ahmed, operations manager at the network, said Tumaisi had called at 7 a.m. to report the clashes on Haifa Street. He called again to report that he was standing near the destroyed U.S. armored vehicle. Ahmed said Tumaisi called five minutes later and said: “Help me. Send someone right away. I am injured in my leg and head. Please help. Please help me quickly.”

Tumaisi was taken to Karama Hospital, where he died of his injuries.

“It is a big scandal,” Ahmed said. “What excuse they have? The tank was destroyed, why should they hit it again?”

When the footage aired again on the television, Ahmed broke down in tears. “I remember when he called me asking for help,” he said. “I couldn’t help him.”

“God’s mercy be on him,” said Wihad Yaqub, al-Arabiya’s executive manager. “The Americans killed him. . . . He wanted to learn journalism, but he didn’t have enough time. He died early.”

Special correspondents Bassam Sebti and Omar Fekeiki contributed to this report.

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