BAGHDAD (AP) — Four American soldiers were abducted during a sophisticated sneak attack last week in the Shiite holy city of Karbala, the U.S. military confirmed Friday. It said three were shot to death and a fourth was mortally wounded with a gunshot to the head when they were found in a neighboring province, far from the compound where they were captured.
Two of the four 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 military said in a statement issued late Friday that confirmed details reported by The Associated Press earlier.
ON DEADLINE: Speculation it was an inside job
On Jan. 20, the day of the raid on a security meeting in Karbala, the military said five soldiers were killed repelling the attack.
The brazen assault, 50 miles south of Baghdad, was conducted by nine to 12 militants posing as an American security team, according to two senior U.S. military officials as well as Iraqi officials. They 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 Iraqi and U.S. military officials.
None of the American or Iraqi officials would allow use of their names because of the sensitive nature of the information.
The confirmation has emerged 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 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 to the east of Karbala, the military issued a long account of what took place.
It 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 mortally 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" near Mahawil, in neighboring Babil province.
"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," said Bleichwehl. "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 at about 6 p.m. 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 Karbala. 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 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, others parked 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.
One U.S. soldier was killed in the melee at the compound, and three were wounded.
The attackers captured four soldiers and fled with them and the computer east toward Mahawil, 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.
Three days afterward, the U.S. military in Baghdad announced the arrest of four suspects in the attack and said they had been detained on a tip from a Karbala resident. No further information was released about the suspects.
The Defense Department has released the names of troops killed last Saturday 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 Gonzales, La.; Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, 25, of Cortland, 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.
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