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Prisoner Uprising In Iraq Exposes New Risk for U.S.

The uprising of Jan. 31 began when U.S. soldiers entered compound No. 5 to search for contraband. A Muslim cleric complained that the soldiers damaged several Korans. Soon, masses of prisoners formed and pressed up against the compound's front fence, chanting and shouting.

"The initial worry was that they would push the fence over and escape," said Air Force Tech. Sgt. Keith Gray, who rushed to the scene with an emergency response force of 15 troops. "We started spraying gas, which pushed back the first row or two. But then they started throwing things."

A U.S. soldier guards Camp Bucca's Theater Internment Facility, which has been the site of several disturbances. (Nabil Al Jurani -- AP)

Using makeshift slingshots, the inmates hurled rocks and chunks of concrete torn from the floors of their huts. They tossed sticks and plastic water bottles filled with sand. They lit plastic bags filled with flammable hand sanitizer.

Prisoners in four other compounds quickly joined in.

Senior Airman Tony Miles, who was manning a tower at compound No. 1, found himself pinned down by the flying debris. "It was chaotic," he recalled. "Stuff was coming from everywhere."

In another tower, Airman 1st Class Eric Coggswell repeatedly shouted in Arabic for the demonstrators to stop. "But they weren't listening," he recounted. "I fired eight shotgun rounds of nonlethal rubber bullets and small rubber pellets. But a lot of the prisoners were using sleeping bags as shields."

Other guards said the inmates appeared to know the limited ranges of the nonlethal shotgun blasts and gas sprays and would withdraw out of range, then rush again toward the perimeters. Their rocks shattered the double-pane glass in the windows of some tower huts.

"It was like an upside-down water fountain, with projectiles spewing into the towers," said Army Capt. Jerry Baird, who supervises the internment facility.

Army Pvt. 1st Class Christopher Cole described the prisoners as moving in waves around the perimeter of his compound, aiming at one tower and then another.

"When they were in front of my tower, there were so many rocks being thrown that I couldn't do anything except crouch in back of the tower hut until they passed," he said. "But then my nonlethal shots wouldn't reach them."

The rioting lasted about an hour, ending soon after word spread that several inmates had been hit with deadly bullets in compound No. 5.

U.S. commanders now suspect the uprising was planned, although the purpose remains unclear. Some here suspect it was meant to protest the Iraqi elections, which had been held the previous day. Others say they believe it was designed to test the guards' responses.

Under U.S. military rules, none of the prisoners could be interviewed for this article.

Senior officers here defended the decision by the two military policemen -- both sergeants -- to fire the deadly shots.

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