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.
In December 2004, a U.S. base in Mosul was penetrated by a suicide bomber who killed 22 people, including 14 U.S. service members. But Saturday's attack appeared to present a new danger to authorities in Iraq: assailants who disguise themselves as officials and travel in convoys.
"The way it happened and the new style, the province has not seen before," said Abdul al-Yasri, head of the provincial council in Karbala. "And this will make us insist on carrying on the security procedures even on official delegates and diplomats when they are coming to Karbala province."
Military officials said Sunday that the cause of the helicopter crash, which killed 12 soldiers northeast of Baghdad on Saturday, also remained under investigation. They said they could not confirm accounts by Iraqi officials and civilians who said it was shot down by insurgents in a Sunni Muslim-dominated area of Diyala province. U.S. officials initially reported that 13 soldiers died in the crash.
The military also announced that two Marines were killed in separate combat incidents Sunday in Anbar province in western Iraq. The military said four soldiers and one Marine were killed in combat Saturday in Anbar. The service members' names were withheld pending notification of their relatives, officials said.
The British military said that a roadside bomb in the southern city of Basra killed one British soldier and wounded four, the Reuters news agency reported.
Reports of carnage targeting Iraqis also continued Sunday. A passenger stepped off of a public minivan in central Baghdad, leaving behind a bomb that exploded, killing four police officers and three civilians, said Gen. Sadoun Qasim of the Iraqi Interior Ministry.
Elsewhere in Baghdad, at least five people were killed by two improvised explosive devices.
Four Iraqis, including a 1-year-old and a 5-year-old, were killed Friday by an improvised explosive device in the city of Yusufiyah, south of Baghdad, the U.S. military said in a statement. An ambulance transporting one of the wounded struck another roadside bomb en route to the hospital. The second blast caused no injuries.
In Ramadi, 60 miles west of Baghdad, a hospital official said the body of a fighter from the insurgent group al-Qaeda in Iraq was taken to the hospital after being discovered in a house. The 31-year-old man had been carrying a fake Iraqi passport and a real Saudi one, according to Muhammad Ismail, a doctor at the hospital.
Sadr Bloc Ends Boycott Of Iraqi National Assembly
The parliamentary bloc of radical Shiite cleric Moqtada al-Sadr announced an end to a boycott that has kept Iraq's young National Assembly semi-paralyzed for two months.
The Sadr bloc returned to the assembly after a parliamentary committee and the speaker, Mahmoud al-Mashhadani, agreed to a series of demands, said Falah Hasan Shenshel, a member of the Sadr bloc.
The demands included establishing a timetable for the buildup of Iraqi troops and the withdrawal of U.S. troops, and a condition that the presence of foreign troops would not be extended without a vote by the assembly, Shenshel said. U.S. troops should retreat from Iraqi cities and return to their bases by the end of August, he said.
"By doing so, America would confirm that it came to Iraq as a liberator and not as an occupier," Shenshel said.
Sadr's movement has 30 seats in the 275-member parliament, and his political loyalists have called for a prompt withdrawal of U.S. troops. He is widely regarded as a focal instigator of the sectarian violence that has ravaged the country in recent months.
Also Sunday, two officials said that Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki had ended his protection of Sadr's militia, the Mahdi Army, after U.S. intelligence convinced him that the group was infiltrated by death squads, the Associated Press reported. The officials spoke on condition of anonymity because the information was confidential.
"Al-Maliki realized he couldn't keep defending the Mahdi Army because of the information and evidence that the armed group was taking part in the killings, displacing people and violating the state's sovereignty," one official said.
Correspondent Joshua Partlow and special correspondents Waleed Saffar, Naseer Nouri and Saad Sarhan contributed to this report.