US confirms kidnap, slaying of soldiers
Military's 1st report is contradicted
BAGHDAD -- In one of the boldest and most sophisticated attacks in four years of warfare, gunmen speaking English, wearing US military uniforms, and carrying American weapons abducted four US soldiers last week at the provincial headquarters in the Shi'ite holy city of Karbala and then shot them to death.
The US military yesterday confirmed 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 US 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 killing of four soldiers leaked out just as President Bush faces stiffening congressional opposition over his plan to send 21,500 more American troops to the Baghdad region.
Two of Congress's most vocal war critics, House Speaker Nancy Pelosi and Representative John Murtha, were in the Iraqi capital as the news broke.
At least 62 people were killed or found dead across Iraq yesterday. A bomb hidden in a box of pigeons exploded yesterday in Baghdad as shoppers gathered around, tearing through a busy pet and livestock market.
In a statement issued late yesterday, 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 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 US government convoys -- had American weapons, wore new US military combat fatigues, and spoke English, according to two senior US 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 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 an Associated Press report that four of the five soldiers had been abducted and found dead or dying about 25 miles east of Karbala, the military issued an 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 Lieutenant Colonel Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for Multi-National Division-Baghdad.
The statement referred to the attackers as "insurgents," which usually suggests Sunnis. Although Karbala province is predominantly Shi'ite, Babil province is heavily populated by Sunnis in the north, near Baghdad. Babil's central and southern regions are largely Shi'ite.
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 Shi'ite Mahdi Army militia, which Iran funds, arms and trains.
Pelosi and Murtha met with Iraqi Prime Minister Nouri al-Maliki in the Green Zone a day after a rocket attack on the heavily fortified complex wounded six people.
"We come out of the meeting with a greater understanding of the others' point of view," Pelosi said, adding that the delegation also made the visit "to convey to our troops the appreciation of the American people for what they're doing, to applaud their patriotism."
In Washington, President Bush challenged skeptical lawmakers yesterday not to prematurely condemn his buildup, saying "I'm the decision-maker."
Bush also defended his decision to authorize the US military to stop suspected Iranian agents operating in Iraq from attacking civilians or American troops.
The president said he directed the military to kill or capture Iranian agents after determining that earlier efforts to curb Iran's aid to Shi'ite insurgents in Iraq weren't working. He said the policy is no indication that the United States intends to expand the confrontation beyond Iraq's borders.
No one claimed responsibility for the bombing, which police and hospital officials said killed 15 people and wounded 66. Suspicion fell on Sunni insurgents because the market sits near a predominantly Shi'ite neighborhood on the east bank of the Tigris River that divides Baghdad.
The explosion struck the Souq al-Ghazl about 10 a.m., one of the busiest times for the animal vendors and an hour before the start of a four-hour vehicle ban that is imposed every Friday to prevent car bombs from striking mosques during weekly Islamic prayers.