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Crew survive as U.S. copter is shot down

By Atul Aneja

MANAMA, JAN.13. The Iraqi resistance forces shot down a U.S. military helicopter on Tuesday even as anti-American protests continued to rock two Shia dominated cities in the south.

The U.S. Apache helicopter was shot down near Habbaniyah, 80 km west of Baghdad. The crash of the AH-64 helicopter gunship, however, did not result in casualties, military officials said.

"It was apparently downed by enemy fire," a U.S. military spokesman said, adding that that two crew members were not hurt. This is the third downing of a U.S. military helicopter in two weeks.

Meanwhile, Al Kut was hit by job riots for the fourth consecutive day on Tuesday. The Ukrainian troops deployed in the area had to, on Monday, resort to firing to bring the unrest under control. About 400 demonstrators had apparently stoned a Government building and stormed a local post-office. Four Iraqi policemen, a Ukrainian soldier and a demonstrator were wounded in the incident.

Al Kut, about 175 km southeast of Baghdad, is the second Shia city of southern Iraq to witness protests against the Anglo-American occupiers. More than 200 people demonstrated in Amara on Monday, demanding jobs. Two days earlier, the British and Iraqi police had opened fire on an estimated 500 people, killing six Iraqis.

Anti-American protests had so far been widespread in the so-called "Sunni triangle" of central Iraq. But the rioting in the southern heartland of Shias, which form the majority of the Iraqi population, is likely to cause fresh complications to the Anglo-American occupation.

Analysts point out that Anti-American sentiments could harden as a top Shia leader, Grand Ayatollah Ali Sistani, and the U.S. administrator in Iraq, Paul Bremer, have clashed over the road map of bringing about self-rule.

The highly revered Ayatollah, in a statement appearing on Sunday, trashed the phased process outlined by the U.S.-appointed Governing Council of Iraq (IGC) that postpones general elections in Iraq to mid-2005. The November 15 agreement between the U.S. occupation authorities and the IGC envisages the formation by June of a caretaker Government whose members would be selected by a transitional Assembly.

The IGC, in turn, would nominate the Assembly's members and local Government officials nation-wide. Criticising this arrangement, Ayatollah Sistani said in his statement which appeared in the Iraqi daily Al-Zaman that, "We want free elections and not appointments". "Each Iraqi must have the right to vote for whomever they trust and want to represent them in the future Assembly," he added. "They want to disfigure the meaning of democracy and freedom that our people enjoy," the statement observed.

But in an apparent rejection of his views, Mr. Bremer has stressed in Baghdad that "We think it is important to implement the agreement, which was agreed by the Governing Council and has been submitted to the United Nations as the best way forward for the return of sovereignty to the Iraqi people."

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