Wall Street Journal: Stoking concerns that insurgents have infiltrated Iraqi forces, an account by four witnesses suggests that a brazen January attack that killed five U.S. soldiers may have been aided by Iraqi police. The Wall Street Journal
Karbala Attack Raises
Concerns About Relying
On Local Forces to Assist
By GINA CHON
March 24, 2007; Page A4
Stoking concerns that insurgents have infiltrated Iraqi forces, an account by four witnesses suggests that a brazen January attack that killed five U.S. soldiers may have been aided by Iraqi police.
The assault on a U.S.-Iraqi compound in Karbala has become the subject of intense scrutiny by military investigators, in part because of its brazenness and in part because of the sophisticated tactics used in the raid.
Initially, it was thought to have begun at the front gates of the compound, which serves as Karbala’s provincial headquarters, when English-speaking gunmen, dressed in U.S.-military uniforms, stormed the gates. But the four witnesses, two of whom are U.S. soldiers, all have said that the first sounds of fighting came from inside a building on the compound in which both U.S. and Iraqi forces worked, not at its front gate. That is just one piece of evidence raising questions about the role of some of the Iraqi forces inside the compound.
The witnesses’ account has heightened worries in the U.S. military about infiltration of Iraqi soldier and police ranks. The recently launched U.S. plan to boost security in Iraq, which included an increase in U.S. troops of more than 20,000, also calls for much-closer coordination between U.S. and Iraqi forces. Infiltration of those forces by insurgents would increase the danger for U.S. soldiers and make the security plan far harder to implement.
The U.S. military has completed its investigation of the Karbala incident but hasn’t released details of its findings. On Thursday, officials said they had detained two Iraqi brothers in connection with the raid, Qais and Laith Khazali. The military said both are closely tied to Shiite Muslim cleric Moqtada al-Sadr, whose powerful Mahdi Army is blamed for some of the violence in Iraq and has often been at odds with U.S. forces. But no details of their alleged roles in the raid were disclosed.
“The precision of the attack, the equipment used and possible use of explosives to destroy the military vehicles suggest that the attack was well-rehearsed prior to execution,” said Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl, spokesman for the Multi-National Division in Baghdad, in a statement.
Last month, some U.S. officials said the operation’s sophistication suggested it was planned by Iran. One theory was that the Americans were killed in retaliation for U.S. forces’ recent detention of five Iranian diplomats in Iraq.
Fears about infiltrators were underscored again Friday when Salam al-Zubaie, one of Iraq’s two deputy prime ministers, was seriously wounded in a suicide bombing that killed nine people and injured 14. The Associated Press reported that Iraqi state television said the attacker was one of Mr. Zubaie’s bodyguards, but the AP couldn’t confirm that claim.
In Karbala, Capt. Brian Freeman of the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion and soldiers from the 25th Infantry Division’s 4th Brigade Combat Team lived and worked in the compound for about a week to 10 days at a time. The team focused on reconstruction projects and training local security forces.
The Jan. 20 attack started around 6 p.m., when many of the soldiers were relaxing. About 20 Iraqi police officers were guarding the compound gates. Two American soldiers in a Humvee were guarding the front of the police-directorate building, and another two were stationed in a Humvee at the back.
At least 10 gunmen dressed in U.S. Army combat uniforms made their way to the compound in a convoy of five GMC Suburban sport-utility vehicles, investigators said. The SUVs had fake antennas mounted on their front bumpers so they seemed to be carrying U.S. State Department officials. Perhaps because the gunmen looked like American soldiers and some spoke English, they were able to pass through Iraqi-manned checkpoints, the military said.
When the convoy arrived at the gates, Iraqi police assumed the men were American soldiers, according to witness statements and people who reviewed after-action reports.
The gunmen entered the compound, confiscated weapons from the Iraqi police and quickly proceeded to the police office, armed with assault rifles and handmade explosives. They also had radios that were on Iraqi police channels.
Just before they stormed the office, loud booms and gunfire erupted from inside the building. Two people at the scene said they saw an Iraqi police officer, armed with an AK-47, attack the office next door to the room where Capt. Freeman, 31 years old, and First Lt. Jacob Fritz, 25, were staying. Other gunmen grabbed the two U.S. officers and rushed them to the SUVs outside, the witnesses said.
The gunmen also kidnapped Spc. Johnathan Chism, 22, and Pfc. Shawn Falter, 25, who were in a Humvee guarding the front of the building.
“The attackers knew their way around very well and knew where the U.S. forces were,” said a person who was at the compound. “They created so much confusion, and people didn’t know what was happening.”
The witnesses said that the gun turret of the two soldiers’ Humvee was pointed at the police building, not the front gate, another piece of evidence suggesting that the fight began inside that building.
U.S. soldiers estimated about two-dozen men were involved in the attack, during which gunfire and explosives came from other buildings surrounding the police office. As the American soldiers fought back, a call was made for reinforcements and for air support from the base at al-Habbaniya about a mile and a half away.
When U.S. military police stationed at the top of the police building reached the ground floor, they found the offices destroyed and the gunmen fleeing. Pvt. Johnathon Millican, 20, was found dead in a downstairs office, and three others were wounded.
Later that day, the bodies of Spc. Chism and Pfc. Falter, both of whom were shot, were found in the back seat of one of the SUVs. First Lt. Fritz was found dead nearby. Only Capt. Freeman was still alive, but he had suffered a gunshot wound to the head. He was rushed to the regional embassy office in Hillah but died en route.
At the site where the SUVs were found, 10 Army combat uniforms were recovered. Security forces also found Kevlar helmets, some of which had coverings sewn from different Army uniforms.
In the Army training report issued shortly after the attack, the military said, “The raid appears to have been calculated to send the message that regardless of the security measures employed, the militia can circumvent them at will.”
Two weeks before he was killed, Capt. Freeman said in an interview with The Wall Street Journal that he suspected the Iraqi police team he worked with was infiltrated by the Mahdi Army, the paramilitary arm of Mr. Sadr’s organization.
Maj. Malcolm Ritchie, Capt. Freeman’s commander, said Capt. Freeman had been having success in influencing provincial-government officials and police to shift their support away from the Mahdi Army. His civil-affairs team had helped rebuild schools, constructed water-treatment units and provided medical assistance to Iraqis. Capt. Freeman had arranged for the son of an Iraqi police officer to have heart surgery in New York.
“I am convinced that the [Mahdi Army”> are very threatened by anything we do that wins over friends or support from the population,” Maj. Ritchie said in an interview before the Khazali brothers were detained. “I believe this was a big factor in the attack.”