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. Last Updated: 07/27/2016

U.S. Troops Fire on Iraqi Protesters, Killing 13

FALLUJA, Iraq -- U.S. soldiers killed at least 13 Iraqi civilians who marched on a school west of Baghdad to demand the troops leave the building and get out of Iraq, doctors and witnesses said Tuesday, as the United States said it is ending military operations in Saudi Arabia.

Medics said 75 were also wounded in the march by more than 200 protesters on the school after Muslim prayers Monday evening in Falluja. Some witnesses put the death toll as high as 17.

Residents said the marchers were unarmed. U.S. forces said the troops opened fire only after they were shot at by a group of gunmen armed with AK-47 assault rifles.

The shooting outraged local people who, like many other Iraqis, welcomed the removal of Saddam Hussein by U.S.-led forces but now want the U.S. troops to leave.

"Our soul and our blood we will sacrifice to you martyrs," hundreds of mourners chanted as they carried at least four simple wooden coffins shoulder-high through the town.

"Now, all preachers of Falluja mosques and all youths ... are organizing martyr operations against the American occupiers," said a man cloaked in white, using the term often used to describe suicide attacks in the Israeli-Palestinian conflict.

A U.S. military spokeswoman said soldiers in Falluja opened fire on gunmen who shot at them with assault rifles.

A local Sunni Muslim cleric, Kamal Shaker Mahmoud, said the protesters had asked the troops to leave the school so that lessons could resume there.

"It was a peaceful demonstration. They did not have any weapons," the cleric said.

"They [U.S. troops] opened fire on the protesters because they went out to demonstrate," he said.

The United States also said Tuesday that it is ending military operations in Saudi Arabia and removing virtually all of its forces from the kingdom after the Iraq war.

Asked if Saudi Arabia had requested the move, a senior U.S. official told reporters traveling with U.S. Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld on his tour of the Gulf: "It was by very mutual agreement."

The move effectively ends a relationship dating back to 1991, when the United States used Saudi Arabia as a launchpad for the last Gulf War to oust Iraqi troops from Kuwait and then as a base to police a no-fly zone over southern Iraq.

The presence of Western troops in the kingdom -- home to Islam's holiest sites -- has irked many Saudis, already angry with the United States over its perceived bias towards Israel.

The U.S. presence was among the first grievances aired by Saudi-born Osama bin Laden to justify attacks against the United States.

U.S. officers said Tuesday that the military had already moved operations of a key combat air control center from a Saudi air base to neighboring Qatar.

Rumsfeld was traveling later to the capital, Riyadh, for talks with Saudi leaders about the future of the U.S. military presence, after the kingdom refused to allow airstrikes against Iraq to be launched from the Prince Sultan base.

U.S. Navy Rear Admiral Dave Nichols said U.S. operations at the base would be virtually over by the end of the summer, because there was no longer any need for the air patrols that policed the no-fly zone.

"We want to be fully out of here by the end of summer," Nichols said.

About 250 prominent members of Iraq's diverse political and ethnic groupings agreed at a U.S.-sponsored meeting Monday to hold a national conference within four weeks to choose an interim government.

Many of the delegates and a British minister who attended the talks hailed the agreement as a breakthrough for democracy after decades of iron rule by Hussein.

"We are moving the process of forming an interim administration forward and they have intimated that they want to move it along quickly," British Foreign Office Minister Mike O'Brien said.

O'Brien, whose country took part in the U.S.-led invasion of Iraq last month, told reporters in Baghdad, "I believe that the process will deliver a result."

Behind a defensive ring of American tanks, U.S. postwar administrator Jay Garner, a retired U.S. general, opened the Baghdad meeting by telling participants they bore a heavy responsibility to transform their country.

Delegates at the meeting told Garner, who promised Iraq on Sunday that U.S. forces would leave as quickly as possible, that they were grateful to Washington for removing Hussein but now wanted to run their own affairs.

From the president on down, U.S. officials have stressed that Washington will not impose a new government on Iraq, although White House spokesman Ari Fleischer said Monday that Washington would welcome an Islamic democracy but "not an Islamic theocracy like Iran."

In a sign the transition to an interim government will be far from easy, delegates said splits emerged between returned Iraqi exiles and those who had lived through the Hussein years.

Most former exiles wanted a lesser U.S. role, arguing that only Iraqis should rule the country, while those who had remained at home said they wanted more U.S. supervision because they did not trust the exiles.