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Military confirms 4 U.S. soldiers were abducted during attack in Karbala
North County Times
By: STEVEN R. HURST and QASSIM ABDUL-ZAHRA
Associated Press Writers
January 26, 2007

BAGHDAD, Iraq -- 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 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.

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.

A look at soldiers abducted, killed in Karbala sneak attack

"You don't have to love the war," Pvt. Johnathon M. Millican wrote on his MySpace page, "but you have to love the warrior." - He was one of four soldiers killed after militants abducted them Jan. 20 from the governor's office in Karbala, Iraq, in a sophisticated sneak attack, the military confirmed Friday.

The four soldiers, and a fifth killed in the attack itself, were remembered for their athleticism -- one was a bobsledder who competed with the U.S. national team -- for their compassion and their dedication.

"He always wanted to be in the military," said Karen Mezger, a friend of 1st Lt. Jacob Fritz's family and a counselor at the rural Nebraska high school he attended. "He was there because he believed in it."

The attackers posed as an American security team, speaking English, wearing U.S. military combat fatigues and traveling in the type of SUVs U.S. government convoys use, U.S. military and Iraqi officials said. The U.S. command initially reported that five soldiers were killed while "repelling the attack," but on Friday confirmed reports from Iraqi officials that four of the soldiers had been taken alive.

Millican, 20, of Trafford, Ala., had been talking with his wife, Shannon, by Web cam the day he was abducted, said Linda Hill of Locust Fork, whom Millican lived with for 2.5 years before graduating high school.

"She heard somebody holler for them to run, and John took off. She said it was later that his computer was logged off," Hill said. Hill said Shannon Millican told her that night her husband had been killed.

Millican, a former high school football player and a member of an airborne artillery brigade, had been in Iraq about three months.

Capt. Brian S. Freeman, who was not abducted but was killed in the attack, was a former member of the Army World Class Athlete Program who competed in bobsled and skeleton with the U.S. national team.

Freeman, 31, of Temecula, Calif., was 16th in the 2003 U.S. skeleton national championships and won a bronze medal as a four-man sled brakeman at a 2002 America's Cup race.

Freeman was willing to ride with any driver to help them gain experience, "even if that meant crashing a few times," U.S. Skeleton National Program Manager Steve Peters said Wednesday. Many of the drivers he helped went on to compete in last year's Olympics, he said.

Steven Holcomb, the World Cup overall bobsled leader and a 2006 Olympian who was in the WCAP program, called Freeman "one of the greatest men I have ever known."

"The time I spent with Brian not only made me a better person, but a better athlete," Holcomb said Wednesday.

Fritz, 25, of Verdon, Neb., was a 2005 graduate of the U.S. Military Academy in West Point, N.Y., who played football, basketball and ran track in high school.

"He was just a very kind, caring, compassionate young man," Mezger said in an interview Monday.

Fritz's 22-year-old brother, Daniel, followed in his footsteps and is to graduate from West Point next year, she said.

Pfc. Shawn P. Falter, 25, of Homer, N.Y., followed three of his older brothers into the Army -- all still on active duty but none currently in Iraq.

One of 13 brothers and sisters, Falter was remembered in his hometown as hardworking but easygoing.

"He knew how to lighten a moment just when you needed it," Homer High School Principal Fred Farah said earlier this week.

A military casualty assistance officer, Staff Sgt. Raymond Swift, answered the phone at Falter's house Friday and said it was the first he had heard of the new details surrounding the deaths. He said the family would not be making any comments.

On Tuesday, Swift released a statement in which Falter's family thanked their community south of Syracuse for their love and support.

"We are extremely proud of Shawn's service and sacrifice to our country," his family said.

Spc. Johnathan Bryan Chism, 22, of Prairieville, La., was a Boy Scout who enjoyed skydiving and rock climbing and became an artillery specialist in the Army.

He "like anybody and everybody," his mother, Elizabeth Chism, said Sunday. He had been due to come home next month for two weeks of rest and relaxation, she said.

Freeman was assigned to the 412th Civil Affairs Battalion, based in Whitehall, Ohio. The other soldiers were assigned to the 2nd Battalion, 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, 4th Brigade Combat Team, 25th Infantry Division, Fort Richardson, Alaska.

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