Gunmen speaking English, wearing US military uniforms and carrying American weapons abducted four US soldiers in Iraq’s Shiite holy city and shot them dead, in what is thought to be the most brazen and sophisticated attack in four years of warfare.
The US military has confirmed a report yesterday that three of the soldiers were dead and one was mortally wounded in the head when they were found in a neighbouring province about 25 miles from the supposedly secure local government compound in Karbala where they were captured last week.
A fifth soldier was killed in the initial attack on the compound.
The new account contradicted a US military statement on January 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 the soldiers was leaked as president George Bush faces stiffening US Congress opposition over his plan to flood Baghdad and surrounding regions with 21,500 more American troops.
Two of most vocal war critics in Congress, House speaker Nancy Pelosi and Rep John Murtha, were in the Iraqi capital Baghdad as the news broke.
In a statement last night, the military said two of the soldiers were handcuffed together in the back seat of a sport utility vehicle near the southern Iraqi town of Mahawil. A third dead soldier was on the ground nearby. The fourth soldier died on the way to hospital.
The shocking assault, 50 miles south of Baghdad, was conducted by nine to 12 gunmen posing as an American security team, the military confirmed.
The attackers travelled in black GMC Suburban vehicles – the type used by US government convoys – had American weapons, wore new US military combat fatigues, and spoke English, according to two senior US military officials.
The confirmation came after nearly a week of inquiries.
The US 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 January 20, while American military officers were meeting their Iraqi counterparts on the main floor of the Provisional Joint Co-ordination Centre in Karbala.