Disguises Used in Attack on Troops

Iraqi firefighters douse a smoldering minibus in central Baghdad after a bomb killed four police officers and three civilians.
Iraqi firefighters douse a smoldering minibus in central Baghdad after a bomb killed four police officers and three civilians. (By Khalid Mohammed -- Associated Press)

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By Ernesto Londoño
Washington Post Staff Writer
Monday, January 22, 2007

BAGHDAD, Jan. 21 -- The armored sport-utility vehicles whisked into a government compound in the city of Karbala with speed and urgency, the way most Americans and foreign dignitaries travel along Iraq's treacherous roads these days.

Iraqi guards at checkpoints waved them through Saturday afternoon because the men wore what appeared to be legitimate U.S. military uniforms and badges, and drove cars commonly used by foreigners, the provincial governor said.

Once inside, however, the men unleashed one of the deadliest and most brazen attacks on U.S. forces in a secure area. Five American service members were killed in a hail of grenades and gunfire in a breach of security that Iraqi officials called unprecedented.

The attack, which lasted roughly 20 minutes, came on a day when the United States lost at least 20 other troops, including a dozen in a helicopter crash, making it the third most lethal day for American forces in Iraq.

Meanwhile, the military announced the arrival of 3,200 troops of the 82nd Airborne Division's 2nd Brigade Combat Team, the first unit to reach Baghdad as part of a 21,500-troop increase that the Bush administration hopes will restore order in the violent capital.

"Soldiers from the 82nd come to us ready to engage in a wide variety of operations in support of the Iraqi Baghdad Security Plan," Lt. Gen. Raymond T. Odierno, the second-ranking U.S. commander in Iraq, said in a statement. "The brigade adds operational flexibility that will assist in securing the population."

U.S. military officials said Sunday that they could not discuss the attack in Karbala in detail because it remained under investigation. But they said the version of events provided by the governor's office was consistent with their preliminary findings.

After arriving at the Provincial Joint Coordination Center in Karbala, 60 miles southwest of Baghdad, the attackers detonated sound bombs, Iraqi officials said. "They wanted to create a panic situation," said an aide to Karbala Gov. Akeel al-Khazaali, who described the events with the governor's permission but on condition of anonymity because he fears reprisals.

The men then stormed into a room where Americans and Iraqis were making plans to ensure the safety of thousands of people expected to visit the holy city for an upcoming holiday.

"They didn't target anyone but the American soldiers," the governor's aide said.

After the attack, the assailants returned to their vehicles and drove away. It was unclear how many people participated, and the men's identities and motive remained unclear, but the attack was particularly striking because of the resources and sophistication involved, Iraqi officials said.

The men drove off toward the city of Babil, north of Karbala, where they shot at guards at a checkpoint, said Capt. Muthana Ahmad, a police spokesman. Vehicles later recovered contained three bodies and one injured individual. The U.S. military took possession of the vehicles, the spokesman said.

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