American troops shoot children in Iraqi demo

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UNITED States soldiers shot back at anti-American protesters, hitting at least seven, including three young boys, after being fired on in a town near Baghdad. A local hospital director said 13 people were killed.

The shooting took place on Monday night in the town of Fallujah, about 30 miles west of the capital. Though residents reported 15 deaths, Col. Arnold Bray of the 82nd Airborne Division said seven people in the crowd were hit.

But Dr Ahmed Ghanim al-Ali, director of Fallujah General Hospital, said there were 13 dead, including three boys under 11 years old. He said his medical crews were shot at when they went to retrieve the injured, which he said numbered 75.

Residents said the demonstration was conducted by children and students between the ages of 5 and 20, but Bray said some were armed. "Ask them which kind of schoolboys carry AK-47s," he said.

The troops were headquartered in a schoolhouse, and some of the protesters fired on the building, Bray said.

Arab television channel Al-Jazeera quoted residents as saying the troops opened fire after someone threw a rock at the school. The demonstrators were reportedly protesting against US troops’ presence in the city.

Local Sunni Muslim cleric, Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, said the demonstrators were unarmed students who had gone to the school to ask the troops to leave.

"It was a peaceful demonstration. They did not have any weapons. They were asking the Americans to leave the school so they could use it.

"They opened fire on the protesters because they went out to demonstrate."

Meanwhile the US reacted angrily to suggestions that a Belgian lawyer might sue its Commander in Chief in the Gulf Tommy Franks for war crimes such as the looting of hospitals, firing on an ambulance, and the deaths of Iraqi civilians.

The Bush administration said there would be "diplomatic consequences" for Belgium if it did not block the move.

State Department spokesman Richard Boucher said: "We believe the Belgian government needs to be diligent in taking steps to prevent abuse of the legal system for political ends."

In a separate development, the head of Britain’s armed forces has warned that the UK military is overstretched and should not pursue another war for 18 months.

Admiral Sir Michael Boyce, who retires as chief of the defence staff at the end of this week, said the Army, Navy and Air Force must be allowed to "draw breath" before going into major action again.

His comments were seized on by Tory defence spokesman Bernard Jenkin who said the government had to decide whether to reduce Britain’s military commitments or increase defence spending.

Sir Michael spoke out as former Iraqi deputy prime minister Tariq Aziz claimed Saddam Hussein was still alive and on the run.

Meanwhile Tony Blair was flying out to Moscow today to try to mend relations with Russian president Vladimir Putin strained by the war.

Admiral Boyce said that the military action against Iraq had put a huge burden on Britain’s armed forces .

He said: "If you asked us to go into a large scale operation in 2004, we couldn’t do it without serious pain. We must allow ourselves time to draw breath.

"If it was to be something of the scale that we have done this time, it would have to be something that the government is convinced is pretty important because I would tell them it would take a while to recuperate."

He said that the armed forces could not handle another "discretionary conflict, a conflict waged by choice" if it were launched in 2004.

He also questioned the need to spend 18 billion on 232 Euro fighters when bombers had proved much more important than fighters in the conflict.

But he did say that the plan for two new "super aircraft carriers" had been proved necessary by the diplomatic difficulties of flying planes over sensitive countries in the run up to the invasion of Iraq.

A new poll shows that six out of ten Britons think Mr Blair’s decision to go to war alongside the US in Iraq has increased the risk of a terrorist attack on the UK.

Forty three per cent of those questioned by Mori think the attack could come in the next six months.

Concern will be increased by Mr Aziz’s claim that Saddam walked away after coalition air strikes aimed at killing him on two occasions - March 19 and April 7.

The loyal aide to the Baghdad dictator said Saddam - who turned 66 yesterday - was now on the run in Iraq.

An opposition leader in the country Ahmed Chalabi said that Saddam and his two notorious sons Uday and Qusay were on the run separately in Iraq but opponents had an idea of where they were heading.

Prime Minister Mr Blair was in Moscow today to meet President Putin and to try and heal the rift which has grown with Russia over the action. It was partly the Russian threat to refuse to back a second UN resolution authorising military action which led Britain and America to act unilaterally.

Russia is now calling for UN weapons inspectors to return to Iraq to verify any findings of weapons of mass destruction.

President Putin is also objecting to a lifting of sanctions on Iraq by the UN without further discussions.

Mr Blair and Mr Putin were expected to discuss questions of co-operation within the UN Security Council in the rebuilding of Iraq.

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