Demonstrators shot in Baghdad

1 killed, 3 wounded among security guards protesting wage cuts

March 28, 2005|By Richard Boudreaux | Richard Boudreaux,LOS ANGELES TIMES

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- Gunmen inside Iraq's Science and Technology Ministry headquarters opened fire yesterday on an angry crowd of off-duty security guards, killing one and wounding three others who were protesting wage reductions, police and witnesses said.

The shooting highlighted a potential new source of instability in a country crippled by war and insurgency: In the aftermath of steep raises after the ouster of Saddam Hussein two years ago, some public employees are now finding fewer Iraqi dinars in their pay envelopes.

Iraq's Facilities Protection Service, which posts armed guards at government buildings, is among the first agencies to feel the pinch. In recent weeks, guards at the ministries of health and electricity have also protested pay cuts.

Yesterday morning, about 100 men who guard Iraq's nuclear power plants and other Science Ministry sites demonstrated peacefully on the lawn outside ministry headquarters. Participants, who were unarmed, said gunfire from windows in the seven-story building put a bloody end to the rally. The protest leader was among the wounded.

Demonstrators counted at least three gunmen and said they were bodyguards of the minister, Rashad Mindan Omar. Iraqi police sealed off the building. Interior Ministry spokesman Sabah Kahdim said an investigation of the shooting was under way.

One of the demonstrators, Bassim Adnan Majeed, 31, said his monthly pay packet had been reduced to the dinar equivalent of $12, from $22, when allowances for food and transportation were eliminated at the beginning of the year. He and others also complained that their ammunition was being rationed.

Ali Ahmed, 34, said each guard is limited to 17 bullets per shift for an AK-47 automatic rifle. "How can we stand up to terrorists who have better weapons and more ammunition?" he asked.

Iraqi officials said the Finance Ministry had ordered the pay cuts and was counting the withheld wages as tax revenue.

"People are demanding public services, and the government needs to pay for them," said Kahdim, the Interior Ministry spokesman. "We have to start somewhere, but every time we take a step to make someone pay his due there's a demonstration in the street."

Kahdim called yesterday's shooting "regrettable," but added: "There are troublemakers who do not want to change to a better government, who want to keep the country in a state of chaos. These guards should remember: Under Hussein they were getting a fraction of what they earn now."

The shooting also reflects Iraq's ethnic and sectarian strife. Protesters said the guards are mostly Shiite Muslims while the science minister and his bodyguards are Sunni Muslim Turkomans.

Meanwhile, insurgent bombs damaged a pipeline yesterday in northern Iraq, halting oil exports to Turkey, and wounded a civilian in the southern city of Basra, where the apparent target was a police patrol. In Baqouba, the bodies of a Shiite political leader and two relatives were found in an abandoned car.

Members of Abu Musab al-Zarqawi's insurgent group posted a video on its Web site yesterday showing the execution of a blindfolded Iraqi captive who had identified himself as Col. Ryadh Gatie Olyway. The authenticity of the video could not be confirmed.

The blindfolded man in the video was shown being shot in the head after saying that he had supplied the U.S. military with names of former Iraqi army officers whose Sunni sect is leading the insurgency.

Meanwhile, the top United Nations envoy in Iraq, Ashraf Qazi, said the Shiite spiritual leader Grand Ayatollah Ali al-Husseini al-Sistani told him yesterday in Najaf that he did not intend to involve himself in politics, except for expressing his opinion during crises.

The Associated Press contributed to this article. The Los Angeles Times is a Tribune Publishing newspaper.

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