Institute for War and Peace Reporting | Giving Voice, Driving Change
Violence Erupts at Pro-Saddam Demo
The streets of Samarra were nearly empty of pedestrians on July 1, except for small patrols of armed anti-Coalition insurgents, and merchants standing in shop doorways looking out nervously.
A protest against the trial of former president Saddam Hussein had earlier plunged the town into anarchy as insurgents and looters attacked official buildings.
Residents say hundreds of demonstrators poured into central Samarra following the appearance of the former president before an Iraqi court.
Iraqi police said a United States troop withdrawal from this predominantly Sunni town, on the river Tigris north of Baghdad, left them unable to maintain order.
Some of the demonstrators were armed with Kalashnikov assault rifles, heavy machine-guns and rocket-propelled grenade launchers.
"They were firing into the air, they were chanting 'Long live Saddam', they were outraged," said Ali al-Samarrai, an engineer who was near the mayor’s office when the protest took place.
"Saddam is an Iraqi and he protected the honour of Iraqis. Thus, we call for his release and for the cancellation of this trial because he is still the president of Iraq," said Mohammed Qasim, who said he took part in the protests.
Residents said the demonstration quickly turned violent, and that insurgents attacked the homes of interior minister Fallah al-Naqib and Wafiq al-Samarrai, a defector from Baathist intelligence. Four guards were reportedly killed.
Although IWPR could not confirm those reports, Samarra's town hall - its doors forced open and its windows blackened by fire - testified to widespread violence, as did a similarly damaged bank building.
Hashim al-Sammerai , 43, who runs a phone kiosk, described the protesters as "a mixture of gangsters and members of the armed resistance. They seized the chance because of the weak security condition in the town after the US troops left."
"I was expecting this protest because many men here were members of security services and ex-army officers," said Haji Kanan Hadi, 55, a retired public servant. "They are unemployed and they have families. They certainly need money and it's clear that they seized this opportunity to express their loyalty to Saddam and to cause chaos and loot public money."
Witnesses said police joined in the protests instead of trying to prevent them.
"I saw some members of the police from the neighbourhood wearing their uniforms, taking part and joining in with these gunmen," said taxi driver Wamidh al-Sammarai, 29.
Captain Mohammed al-Sammarai , 41, of the town's police station, acknowledged that some rogue policemen had taken part in looting, but insisted the bulk of the police force was simply unable to cope with the scale of unrest. "Police lost control over the city after the American withdrawal. We don't have heavy weapons.… The Americans used to back us with their weapons," he said.
The police captain said hundreds of men had left the force after receiving letters accusing them of collaboration with the insurgents. "Three-quarters of the policemen have left their jobs. We have only the remaining quarter," he said.
Wisam al-Jaff is an IWPR trainee in Baghdad.
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