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US Commanders Launch Inquiry into Shooting Incident in Falluja

Irate U.S. military officials have denounced news reports charging American soldiers fired unprovoked into a crowd of protesters in a town west of Baghdad. Reports say 13 people may have been killed and scores more wounded.

The anger of defense officials focused primarily on Arab-language media reports about the shooting incident at Falluja. The U.S. military's Central Command says the reports of an alleged unprovoked attack by American soldiers "are not accurate."

Instead, a statement issued by the Central Command says U.S. troops were fired on by about 25 armed civilians mixed with a crowd of about 200 protesters outside a compound used by the Americans.

The statement says that in addition to receiving fire from elements in the crowds, snipers positioned on nearby buildings also shot at the soldiers.

The Central Command says at least seven of the armed civilians were wounded. But its statement says claims of numerous casualties among innocent civilians cannot be confirmed. Officials say the crowd retrieved the wounded and dispersed after the exchange of gunfire. The statement says it is extremely unlikely coalition forces will ever be able to determine whether any unarmed civilians were killed or injured.

Commanders have launched an inquiry into the incident. They are also meeting with local officials in a bid to defuse tensions and prevent any recurrence of the trouble.

At the same time, though, defense officials stress U.S. forces have the right of self-defense when threatened.

An Iraqi hospital official says at least 13 people were killed and 75 wounded in the shooting incident, which occurred during a demonstration outside a school building being used by U.S. forces. The protesters want the soldiers to leave so students can return to classes.

However Falluja was a known stronghold of Saddam Hussein and one resident told reporters demonstrators carried portraits of the ousted Iraqi leader to mark his 66th birthday.

In the meantime, the U.S. Central Command has disclosed a number of incidents in which coalition soldiers have come under fire in recent days in Iraq. One soldier attached to the coalition command headquarters in Baghdad was shot and wounded by an unknown assailant while traveling Tuesday in a convoy. The Central Command says other U.S. soldiers did not return fire because they could not positively identify where the shots came from. The military says the soldier's wounds are not considered life-threatening.

Military spokesmen say such incidents demonstrate that despite coalition successes in defeating pockets of resistance in Iraq, dangers remain both for coalition forces and the Iraqi people.

The following is a transcript of comments made in the interview of Lt. Col. Eric Nantz in Falluja on the shooting incident there:

"I think there was a misunderstanding that occurred, but I can tell you that we have a loudspeaker truck with a loudspeaker. You know, you've seen on American television certainly we have protests, and their right to speak is something that we honour. Exchanges like we just had here I think are good and healthy for the building of a new Iraq, but certainly not with the firing of automatic weapons or with the throwing of grenades and stones. Once U.S. soldiers lives are threatened - that's not the right form any longer for the voice of freedom."

"The problem -and that's what I was trying to explain to them - that blood, to my belief, is on the hands of those who were firing the weapons at U.S. and coalition forces. When they decided to aim their weapons at this building and the soldiers that were on this building, it's those individuals that fired those weapons and that's who we returned fire on were those with weapons, not the crowd that was there, although the crowd was hostile."