By STEVEN R. HURST and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
The Associated Press
Saturday, January 27, 2007; 5:12 AM
BAGHDAD, Iraq -- In perhaps the boldest and most sophisticated attack in four years of warfare, gunmen speaking English, wearing U.S. military uniforms and carrying American weapons abducted four U.S. soldiers last week at the provincial headquarters in the Shiite holy city of Karbala and then shot them to death.
The U.S. military confirmed a report earlier Friday by The Associated Press that three of the soldiers were dead and one was mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head when they were found in a neighboring province, about 25 miles from the compound where they were captured. A fifth soldier was killed in the initial attack on the compound.
The new account contradicted a U.S. military statement on Jan. 20, the day of the raid on an Iraqi governor's office, that five soldiers were killed "repelling" the attack.
The security breakdown and the dramatic kidnapping and murder of four soldiers leaked out just as President Bush faces stiffening congressional opposition over his plan to flood Baghdad and surrounding regions with 21,500 more American troops. Two of Congress's most vocal war critics, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep. John Murtha, were in the Iraqi capital as the news broke.
In a statement issued late Friday, the military said two of the soldiers were handcuffed together in the back seat of an SUV near the southern Iraqi town of Mahawil. A third dead soldier was on the ground nearby. The fourth soldier died on the way to the hospital.
The brazen assault, 50 miles south of Baghdad, was conducted by nine to 12 gunmen posing as an American security team, the military confirmed. The attackers traveled in black GMC Suburban vehicles (the type used by U.S. government convoys), had American weapons, wore new U.S. military combat fatigues, and spoke English, according to two senior U.S. military officials as well as Iraqi officials.
None of the American or Iraqi officials would allow use of their names because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The confirmation came after nearly a week of inquiries. The U.S. military in Baghdad initially did not respond to repeated requests for comment on reports that began emerging from Iraqi government and military officials on the abduction and a major breakdown in security at the Karbala site.
Within hours of the AP report that four of the five dead soldiers had been abducted and found dead or dying about 25 miles east of Karbala, the military issued a long account of what took place.
"The precision of the attack, the equipment used and the possible use of explosives to destroy the military vehicles in the compound suggests that the attack was well rehearsed prior to execution," said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for Multi-National Division-Baghdad.
"The attackers went straight to where Americans were located in the provincial government facility, bypassing the Iraqi police in the compound," he said. "We are looking at all the evidence to determine who or what was responsible for the breakdown in security at the compound and the perpetration of the assault."
The Karbala raid, as explained by the Iraqi and American officials, began after nightfall on Jan. 20, while American military officers were meeting with their Iraqi counterparts on the main floor of the Provisional Joint Coordination Center in Karbala.
Iraqi officials said the approaching convoy of black GMC Suburbans was waved through an Iraqi checkpoint at the edge of the city. The Iraqi soldiers believed it to be American because of the type of vehicles, the distinctive camouflage American uniforms and the fact that they spoke English. One Iraqi official said the leader of the assault team was blond, but no other official confirmed that.
A top Iraqi security official for Karbala province told the AP that the Iraqi guards at the checkpoint radioed ahead to the governor's compound to alert their compatriots that the convoy was on its way.
Iraqi officials said the attackers' convoy divided upon arrival, with some vehicles parking at the back of the main building where the meeting was taking place, and others parking in front.
The attackers threw a grenade and opened fire with automatic rifles as they grabbed two soldiers inside the compound. Then the guerrilla assault team jumped on top of an armored U.S. Humvee and captured two more soldiers, the U.S. military officials said.
In its statement, the U.S. military said one soldier was killed and three were wounded by a "hand grenade thrown into the center's main office which contains the provincial police chief's office on an upper floor."
The attackers captured four soldiers and fled with them and the computer east toward Mahawil in Babil province, crossing the Euphrates River, the U.S. military officials said.
The Iraqi officials said the four were captured alive and shot just before the vehicles were abandoned.
Police, who became suspicious when the convoy of attackers and their American captives did not stop at a roadblock, chased the vehicles and found the bodies, the gear and the abandoned SUVs.
The military statement said: "Two soldiers were found handcuffed together in the back of one of the SUVs. Both had suffered gunshot wounds and were dead. A third soldier was found shot and dead on the ground. Nearby, the fourth soldier was still alive, despite a gunshot wound to the head."
The wounded soldier was rushed to the hospital by Iraqi police but died on the way, the military said.
The military also said Iraqi police had found five SUVs, U.S. Army-type combat uniforms, boots, radios and a non-U.S. made rifle at the scene.
Three days after the killings, the U.S. military in Baghdad announced the arrest of four suspects in the attack and said they were detained on a tip from a Karbala resident. No further information was released about the suspects.
Friday's military statement referred to the attackers as "insurgents," which usually suggests Sunnis. Although Karbala province is predominantly Shiite, Babil province is heavily populated by Sunnis in the north, near Baghdad. Babil's central and southern regions are largely Shiite.
A senior Iraqi military official said the sophistication of the attack led him to believe it was the work of Iranian intelligence agents in conjunction with Iraq's Shiite Mahdi Army militia, which Iran funds, arms and trains.
The Defense Department has released the names of troops killed Jan. 20 but clearly identified only one as being killed because of the sneak attack.
Capt. Brian S. Freeman, 31, of Temecula, Calif., "died of wounds suffered when his meeting area came under attack by mortar and small arms fire." Freeman was assigned to the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion, Whitehall, Ohio.
The only other troops killed that day in that region of Iraq were four Army soldiers said to have been "ambushed while conducting dismounted operations" in Karbala.
The four were identified as 1st Lt. Jacob N. Fritz, 25, of Verdon, Neb.; Spc. Johnathan B. Chism, 22, of Prairieville, La.; Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, 25, of Homer, N.Y., and Pvt. Johnathon M. Millican, 20, of Trafford, Ala. All were with the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, of Fort Richardson, Alaska.
On Saturday afternoon, two car bombs struck a market in a mainly Shiite district in Baghdad, killing at least 11 people and wounding more than 30, police said.
The attack began about 12:15 p.m. in New Baghdad in the eastern half of the capital when a suicide car bomber plowed into the busy commercial area.
A parked car bomb exploded shortly afterward as people converged on the area to help the victims or see what had happened _ a common tactic in the relentless attacks by suspected Sunni insurgents.