By all accounts, a protest demonstration against the U.S. occupation in al-Falluja began around 6:30 p.m. on April 28th. Approximately 150 people gathered in front of the Ba`th Party headquarters on the main street, where U.S. troops in al-Falluja were based. The city hall is next door.
According to participants in the demonstration, the protest was peaceful and no one had guns. They chanted slogans like "God is great! Muhammad is his prophet!" They also chanted a slogan heard often at protests around Iraq: "No to Saddam! No to the U.S.!"
According to Lt. Col. Nantz, he got into a Humvee with a loudspeaker and drove up and down al-Falluja's main road broadcasting a warning, through his translator, that he said could be heard for 900 yards: "The firing of weapons is considered dangerous to coalition forces and locals. It could be considered a hostile act and you may be confronted with deadly force."16
The shooting mostly stopped but an aggressive crowd reconvened thirty minutes later, chanting slogans in front of the U.S. base at the local Ba`th Party headquarters and the mayor's office. "They started to throw rocks at the U.S and our building," Mayor al-`Alawani said. U.S. forces fired a warning shot over the demonstrators, which once again dispersed the crowd.
One of the demonstrators, Falah Nawwar Dhahir, mostly agreed with this version of events, although he claimed the warning shot was an attack. "Near the intersection at the traffic light, the tanks shot at us, so we attacked them," he said. "We started to shout at them: "God is great!" and America is God's enemy!"17 Human Rights Watch found no impact marks on the street or nearby buildings to suggest a tank attack on the crowd in front of the main base.
At 10:00 p.m., the crowd regrouped again, this time heading in the direction of the school, a few-minute walk from the main street. Participants and U.S. soldiers estimate the crowd between 100 and 250 people.
According to every Iraqi witness and participant interviewed by Human Rights Watch, twenty people in total, no one in the demonstration had arms. Many admitted, however, that there was shooting in other neighborhoods of al-Falluja, including on the main street. "I am sure that if we had had weapons we would have killed them," said Ahmad Hatim Karim, one of the demonstrators. "We wanted to enter the school and kill them."18 In contrast, U.S. soldiers say that individuals in the crowd had weapons. From his position in the U.S. base at the Ba`th headquarters, Lt. Col. Nantz said he saw "at least ten AKs" in the crowd, meaning AK-47 assault rifles.19
As soon as the demonstration reached the school, shooting began. Again, the versions of events differ widely.
The participants in the demonstration and Iraqi witnesses interviewed by Human Rights Watch were emphatic that they had been attacked without provocation. All of the individuals said that U.S. troops fired excessively and indiscriminately as they arrived at the school.
Falah Nawwar Dhahir, a twenty-four-year-old worker whose brother was killed in the incident, said the demonstrators had no weapons. People far from the school were shooting in the air, he said, but not at U.S. soldiers. "They suddenly started shooting at us," he said. "There was continuous shooting until people fled. They shot at people when they came out to get the wounded. Then there was individual shooting, like from snipers."20
One of the demonstrators, Mu`taz Fahd al-Dulaimi, saw his cousin, Samir `Ali al-Dulaimi, get shot. He told Human Rights Watch: "There was no shooting and they suddenly started shooting at us. There were four [U.S. soldiers] on the roof-I saw them with my own eyes. There was a heavy machine gun. It was full automatic shooting for ten minutes. Some of the people fell to the ground. When they stood up, they shot again."21
As`ad Mirhij Rashid al-`Ubaidi, who lives behind the school, said he went out with his three brothers when they heard the demonstrators going to the school. "We reached the front school door," he said. "We were without weapons. They started shooting right away, intensively at the people. The crowd dispersed."22
Many of the witnesses said there was gunfire in al-Falluja at the time of the demonstration, but not near the school. "There was shooting all the time," As`ad Mirhij Rashid al-`Ubaidi said. "Kalashnikovs shooting in the air, but so far from the school."23
`Umar al-Qubaisi, who lives in the neighborhood and watched the protesters approach the school, also stressed that there had been no shooting from the Iraqi side. "The shooting from the Iraqi side started after the U.S. soldiers opened fire," he said. "But it was from another area and in the air."24
Three brothers of the al-`Ani family were hardest hit. The brothers live in three adjacent houses across the street from the school. The eldest, Muthanna, was shot in the foot while in his garden, and the other two brothers were hit while trying to carry him into the house. The middle brother, Walid, died from his wounds.
The brothers' cousin, Riad al-Khatib, aged thirty-five, said he was having dinner with his wife and child at Walid's house when the demonstration arrived. "It wasn't our business, he said. "We did not know about them."25
According to al-Khatib, the diners heard heavy gunfire on the street, and then someone yelling from inside Muthanna's house. Al-Khatib ran out to see what had happened and saw that Muthanna had been shot in the foot. He told Human Rights Watch:
We tried to take Muthanna from the house to the hospital. Usama [the youngest brother] and I took him to the door. Walid came to help us. While Walid was helping us he was hit in the heart. He was shot in front of the door of Muthanna's house. We left Muthanna on the pavement. I took Walid and brought him to the garden. And I went back to Usama, telling him to get the car. Meanwhile, the shooting was ongoing at Muthanna. So Muthanna was crawling back into his brother's house [Walid's]. I took Muthanna and put him inside the garden of Walid's house and waited for Usama to bring the car. I did not know that Usama was hit in his car. So I took off my shirt to wrap Muthanna's leg. Meanwhile, the shooting was ongoing. Usama ran inside toward Walid's house. At that point, he was hit in the head. I noticed I could not go outside. I took off my undershirt to use as a white flag but still they shot at me. Fragments hit my fingers.
Human Rights Watch separately interviewed the wounded brother Usama, who gave a corroborating account:
After the shooting started, I heard some shouting from my brother Muthanna's house. His children and his wife were shouting, and he was also shouting loudly. I decided to go out and see what was happening. I entered his house and saw him in the garage. He told me that he was shot inside his house in the foot, and that his foot was gone.
I pulled him out into the street to bring him to another house. But he is very heavy, so I stopped to rest. Walid came out to help me, and I saw Walid fall to the ground [after being shot]. I carried Walid and took him inside the house. I could not carry Muthanna myself, so I ran to my house to get my taxi. I opened the garage door and started bringing the car outside. Two bullets grazed the back of my head as I was trying to reverse the car backwards. After that I got out of the car and started to crawl. I was pulling myself along and turning over until I reached the middle of the street. During this time, they shot more than thirty bullets at me.
I raised myself and started to run away. I took another shot from the back, hitting my colon, which was removed in an operation. I entered my parents' house and saw some people I did not know. I was covered in blood from head to toe.26
The sequence of events described by Riad al-Khatib and Usama `Abd al-Latif al `Ani-the initial shooting of Muthanna and then the subsequent shooting of Usama and Walid during the rescue effort-lend credence to the protesters' estimate that U.S. soldiers shot over a period of approximately ten minutes, rather than the thirty seconds estimated by U.S. soldiers.27
Human Rights Watch also saw the injured Muthanna, who was wounded in both feet. His left foot had been amputated. Usama's car, described above, was struck with more than thirty rounds (see section below on Ballistic Evidence at the School).
The three U.S. soldiers and two commanders interviewed by Human Rights Watch had a different version of events. The most detailed account was provided by 2LT.Wesley Davidson, who was in command of the Charlie Company platoon responsible for security at the school when the crowd arrived.28
Charlie Company was already on high alert, 2LT. Davidson said, partly because it was Saddam's birthday, but especially because the soldiers had been following that day's demonstration in town. They had also heard Lt. Col. Nantz's warnings (translated into Arabic) over the loudspeaker.
As the crowd headed towards the school, armed soldiers got into position on the roof and in the second floor windows. "Machine guns were on the roof because they have the best field of fire," Davidson said. M-4 carbines, a shorter version of the M-16 rifle, were also on the roof and in the windows, as well as M-249 machineguns, both of which use 5.56 mm ammunition.
Davidson reported "sporadic gunfire into the air but not at us" as the crowd approached from the main street. But the shooting increased as demonstrators reached the street corner. "You could tell the rounds were picking up," he said.
The unit had a sniper named Mack who understood Arabic. According to Davidson, Mack said the crowd was chanting something about blood and Saddam. The soldiers threw a smoke canister in an attempt to disperse the crowd, Davidson said, but it had no effect, perhaps because of the dark. They shot illumination rounds from mortar tubes, but the crowd still did not disperse. The soldiers then claimed they saw men with weapons on the roofs of the three houses across the street. "They had weapons but were not shooting, so we just watched them," 2LT. Davidson said. "We had our lasers on them." The sniper Mack, he said, shot out a bright light on top of one of the houses that was shining in the soldiers' eyes.
At this point, the soldiers' claim they came under what they considered to be "effective fire." Two men fired from behind a taxi that was rolling down the street from south to north, while four or five other armed men mingled into the crowd. "The bullets started coming at us, shooting over our heads, breaking windows," 2LT. Davidson said. "It was coming from the street, the guys behind the taxi cab and some in the crowd. They were shooting at our guy on the northeast corner of the schoolhouse."
All three U.S. soldiers interviewed together by Human Rights Watch, as well as their commanders, Lt. Col Nantz and Col. Bray, were adamant that the soldiers had come under fire from gunmen in the crowd and on the roofs across the street, hearing the crack of bullets snapping over their heads. "Rounds were hitting the building, hitting the window and flying over our heads," Davidson said.
Considering themselves under attack, the soldiers fired back with powerful force. A soldier firing a 7.62 mm machinegun-the M-60-targeted primarily the men shooting from behind the taxicab, the U.S. soldiers said. Other soldiers using M-4 carbines shot at the armed men in the crowd. Lt. Col. Eric Nantz, rejected any suggestion that his men fired without need. "They [armed Iraqis] fired at us and we returned precision and lethal fire," he stressed.29
U.S. Central Command on April 29 issued a statement claiming that U.S. troops had come under fire, although it gave a number of Iraqi shooters that is higher than that given by the soldiers interviewed by Human Rights Watch. "U.S. Army paratroopers from the 82nd Airborne Division were fired upon during the night of April 28 by approximately twenty-five armed civilians who were interspersed among and on rooftops above approximately 200 protesters," the statement said. "The paratroopers received hostile gunfire from elements mixed within the crowd and positioned atop neighboring buildings."30
Col. Bray told Human Rights Watch that his soldiers had "engaged" seven shooters: five in the crowd and two on the roofs across the street. "The response was proportional to the threat as it was perceived at the time," he said.31
Once the shooting stopped, Iraqi witnesses and ambulance drivers claimed it was impossible to reach the wounded in the street as U.S. forces shot into the air and ordered the ambulances to leave. The injured were dragged into houses and taken through the gardens to ambulances, they said. According to the al-Falluja Hospital ambulance driver, Jum`a `Abid Muthin: "My lights were on. We got out and shouted "We're an ambulance!" and they [U.S. soldiers] said 'Go away!' They shot in the air."32 While the intentions of the U.S. soldiers in denying passage to the ambulances is unclear, this should be part of the investigation. Under international humanitarian law U.S. soldiers had an obligation to allow the wounded access to medical care as soon as practicable.
An ambulance from the Jordanian military hospital arrived at the scene thirty minutes after the shooting. "At the school I saw a lot of U.S. soldiers on the roof and many injured [Iraqis] on the ground," the driver Ahmad Isma`il Thnainan said. "The Americans said `Go! Go!' Iraqi people brought the injured to me. I took two to the hospital, both with bullet wounds."33
At the hospital, al-Falluja residents tried to beat the Jordanian driver because they mistook him and his armed escort for U.S. troops. "People hit me at the hospital because they thought I was American," Thnainan said.
By that time, relatives and friends of the demonstrators were beginning to show up at the hospital, eager for news. The area mosques had also asked residents to donate blood. It was only then that many of them learned of the wounded and killed.
"I was searching for my brother, I thought he was one of the injured," Falah Nawwar Dhahir said. "When I was in front of the emergency entrance [of the hospital], as they were taking bodies in, one of the bodies was my brother's. He was shot in the middle of the chest." 34
One of the victims was thirteen-year-old `Abd al-Qadir `Abd al-Latif al-Jumaili, a student, who had heard the demonstration pass his house and decided to join. The child's father did not learn until later that his son had been killed by a bullet to the chest. The father told Human Rights Watch:
All the children came back and I asked if `Abd al-Qadir is with them. They did not know where he was, they thought he had come home before them. I was searching for my boy near the school but I could not find him. As I heard from the mosque loudspeakers, there were some wounded on the streets and people must give blood. So I went to the hospital to look for my boy. When I got to the hospital, I saw my brother `Isam getting the body and he gave it to me.35