U.S. Civilians Mutilated in Iraq Attack

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Four American civilians were ambushed and shot or beaten to death here Wednesday by insurgents, witnesses and U.S. officials said. Townspeople mutilated the bodies of at least two of the men, dragged them through the streets, suspended them from a bridge and burned them while crowds danced and cheered.

Two hours earlier, 12 miles away near the town of Habbaniya, five U.S. soldiers were killed when their armored vehicle ran over a roadside bomb that left a 10-by-15-foot crater. It was the deadliest roadside bombing against American soldiers since the invasion of Iraq one year ago, and it made March the second-deadliest month for the U.S. military since the beginning of the war.

The four men killed in the Fallujah ambush were not immediately identified. Officials said they were employed by a private security firm, Blackwater Security Consulting, of Moyock, N.C., which issued a statement confirming the deaths of four of its employees.

The extraordinary attacks stunned U.S. officials and signaled a new level of violence and brutality in an insurgency that has directed its lethal energy at every symbol of the American-led occupation: troops, contractors, aid workers and Iraqis viewed as collaborators. Even on the battle-scarred streets of Fallujah, residents said they were shocked by the ferocity of the insurgents and their sympathizers.

White House press secretary Scott McClellan blamed terrorists and loyalists of deposed president Saddam Hussein for the "horrific attacks" and vowed that they would not alter U.S. plans to turn over political power to an interim Iraqi government on June 30. In Baghdad, Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said, "Fallujah remains one of those cities in Iraq that just don't get it."

The violence here came five days after a running gun battle in the streets of Fallujah left 15 Iraqis and one Marine dead. The city, about 35 miles west of Baghdad, has been the site of some of the fiercest anti-American attacks in the country. None of the earlier violence, however, featured the grisly acts played out across the center of Fallujah for hours on Wednesday.

U.S. officials said their information about the assault was limited and sketchy.

"Quite frankly, we don't yet know what has happened today," Kimmitt, the deputy director of operations for the military's joint task force in Iraq, said at a news conference. "It would be premature to judge or criticize or make even any assessment of what happened today until we know all the facts."

Iraqi witnesses interviewed hours after the attack provided descriptions of the violence that were generally consistent but could not be independently verified.

The ambush was carried out by three insurgents who drove into town on a large truck, witnesses said. After shooting the four Americans, the attackers left the area, witnesses said. The desecration of the victims' bodies was perpetrated by mobs of enraged townspeople.

Lt. Col. Jalal Sabri Khamis Taee, the head of police patrols in Fallujah, said 11 of his officers arrived after the killings and found "hundreds of people, old and young," chanting slogans against the Americans.

Crowds carried the bodies of two victims to the nearby Euphrates River and hung the corpses from one of two bridges that span the waterway. Hours later, the bodies were cut down, tossed onto a pile of tires and set afire.

The bodies were then dragged behind a donkey cart to Fallujah's municipal building and dumped there, only to be tied to the bumper of a car and dragged away to an unknown location.

By nightfall, the 1st Marine Expeditionary Force, which took over responsibility for security in western Iraq last week, had not entered Fallujah to retrieve the bodies.

The deaths of the four Americans brought to 16 the number of foreign civilians killed in Iraq since March 9. Before Wednesday, six Americans, two Finns and one citizen each from Britain, Canada, Germany and the Netherlands had been slain.

The statement issued by the company that employed the Americans, Blackwater Security, said four members of its staff were killed in the attack while providing security on a food convoy for a U.S. government subcontractor. The company did not provide details about the identities of the dead men or about whether there were more than two vehicles in the convoy.

Blackwater Security is a division of Blackwater USA, which has a 6,000-acre training site in northeastern North Carolina. Blackwater trains security and law enforcement personnel for domestic and overseas assignments and emphasizes its use of former Special Operations forces from the military, particularly Navy SEALs, an elite commando unit. The name Blackwater alludes to the commando practice of deploying into water at night.

The company also has a contract to provide the personal security detail for L. Paul Bremer, the U.S. administrator for Iraq.

Some witnesses said the insurgents had planned Wednesday's ambush in advance. Esam Yassin, 22, who sells biscuits and soft drinks at a small shop on Highway 10, said owners of businesses along the four-lane road were warned Wednesday morning to stay away from the area because of an impending clash with the Americans.

The attack occurred in a commercial district that is normally busy. But on Wednesday, Yassin said, the morning streets were nearly devoid of their normal pedestrian and vehicular traffic.

Yassin said insurgents were circulating this message: "We will be waiting here for them and a big battle will happen. So we don't want civilians to be around."

Wednesday's bombing of a Bradley Fighting Vehicle near Habbaniya brought to 408 the number of U.S. troops killed in combat since the invasion of Iraq. At least 48 of those deaths came in March, making it the deadliest month for American forces since November, when 82 troops were killed.

In Baghdad, several thousand young Shiite Muslim men marched on Wednesday to protest the closing of a newspaper published by an anti-American cleric.

The march was peaceful, but the young, mostly unemployed men who make up the so-called Mahdi Army chanted their readiness to take up arms on behalf of their Shiite clerical leader, Moqtada Sadr.

Special correspondent Naseer Nouri in Fallujah, correspondent Karl Vick in Baghdad and staff writers Mary Pat Flaherty, Dana Priest and Jackie Spinner in Washington contributed to this report.

Iraqis cheer as the mutilated bodies of two Americans hang from a bridge in Fallujah. The bodies were later dragged behind a donkey cart.

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An April 1 article incorrectly stated that March was the second-deadliest month for the U.S. military since the start of the Iraq war. It was the second-deadliest month since May 1, when President Bush declared the end of major combat. (Published 4/2/04)

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