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Who was behind Karbala assault, in which 5 Americans died?

It was late afternoon in the government compound in Karbala, Iraq. In a moment of respite from the war, American Pfc. Johnathon Millican was instant-messaging with his wife back in Anchorage, Alaska, where a snowy day was just beginning.

A U.S. soldier at the next desk was on his laptop too, watching his son on a video camera back home. Three other soldiers were in the room, relaxing or sleeping. A captain and a lieutenant were in the room next door.

It was Jan. 20. The American soldiers had been in the garrison for a week, working with local police and provincial officials to ensure security for the 10-day Ashura religious commemoration, which was about to begin. Even in the middle of sectarian warfare, hundreds of thousands might show.

But something else was brewing.

As Millican, 20, tapped away on his keyboard, a fleet of SUVs was racing toward the compound: two or three Suburbans, a black Chevy Tahoe or two, and at least three white Toyotas. The Suburbans had big cylindrical antennas on their front bumpers, the kind that jam the signals used to trigger roadside bombs. And, like contractor and U.S. Army vehicles, there were placards in the rear windows, warning motorists in English and Arabic to stay back 100 meters.

The men inside were dressed in U.S. Army camouflage and carried American weapons. They knew enough English to bark simple commands and offer polite greetings. They knew exactly how the U.S. soldiers would defend the compound. They knew that the compound's most important room was the command and control center _ with its radio base stations _ and they knew that at 6 p.m., the soldiers in the room would be off guard and relaxing. They even knew that the two most senior American officers in Karbala would be in the room next door.

BETRAYAL

Who paid for and trained the force that was about to attack and who betrayed the Americans have become among the most troubling questions in the Iraq war. Senior U.S. officers said the lightning assault was one of the most sophisticated and complex attacks on coalition forces since Baghdad fell.

Two weeks ago in Baghdad, a military spokesman disclosed new suspicions of high-level Iranian involvement in the attack, including the alleged use of Lebanese proxies to train the force.

But while U.S. officials talk about an Iranian role in planning the attack, they've said little about how Iranians would have obtained the detailed intelligence needed for the raid or who carried it off.

An official Army investigation, completed in February and recently released to McClatchy Newspapers under the Freedom of Information Act, put the onus for intelligence-gathering and ground support on Iraqi police, America's supposed ally.

Not only were police negligent in surrendering their guard positions to the intruders without firing a shot or warning the Americans, the report says, but investigators found strong circumstantial evidence that police officials gave the attackers key intelligence and may have been complicit in allowing an advance force of attackers into the compound.

VISITORS FROM BAGHDAD

Karbala, about 55 miles southwest of Baghdad, was the site of a decisive seventh-century battle for control of Islam, a bloodbath that cemented the divide between the victorious Sunnis and defeated Shiites. Each year, the Ashura pilgrimage brings mourning Shiite faithful to shrines to the Imam Hussein and his brother, Abbas, who were slaughtered with their men in that battle.

After the American-led invasion of Iraq, U.S. authorities surrounded the provincial headquarters in the center of Karbala with walls and gates. The usual operations of local government take place inside those walls: the governor's office, a land records bureau, an elections office and the provincial police.

According to the Feb. 27 investigative report, platoons from the 377th Parachute Field Artillery Regiment, from Fort Richardson, Alaska, and the 127th U.S. Military Police Transition Team, based in Germany, routinely spent a week at a time in the compound, providing security and training for Iraqi police and soldiers and other governmental assistance. Sometimes a more senior civil affairs officer, Capt. Brian Freeman, also would make the trip.

In Karbala, many of the U.S. soldiers were assigned to a barracks inside the compound, but Millican, Freeman, platoon leader Lt. Jacob Fritz and a few others worked and slept in two adjacent offices in the nearby joint coordination center. The first-floor rooms were just off the building entrance.

The U.S. soldiers had arrived by convoy in their armored Humvees a week earlier and had been planning security for Ashura with Iraqi officials.

Around 1:30 p.m. Jan. 20, the day before the first pilgrims would start arriving, Millican and another soldier were on guard shift when an odd-looking outfit of 15 to 20 Iraqi police officers arrived from Baghdad. They were dressed in purple-on-black camo, and some took pictures of the secured area. Most were young and fit and appeared to be a personal security detail to three older, heavy men who were wearing the insignia of general in the Iraqi national police.

One of the soldiers described a fourth man who stood out: "A tall man, probably late 30s, with Arabic lettering tattooed on his left hand. He also had a tooth missing on the left side of his mouth; you could see it when he smiled. He didn't fit in with the rest."

None of the Americans knew of any scheduled meetings that day that would involve the visitors from Baghdad, and they wondered what was up. A U.S. soldier who was on his way to a quick meeting with Gen. Mohammed, the senior Iraqi police commander in Karbala, encountered the purple-on-black force in the hallway.

"My interpreter talked with a commando, a fat guy, and he said they were there to meet with the general to talk about Ashura," the soldier later told investigators.

A witness named one of the visitors as Brig. Gen. Nabeel from Baghdad. Some of the men in purple camo left that afternoon in a convoy, but others, the February report concluded, composed an advance unit for the attack that evening and remained behind. Its connection with Gen. Mohammed would arouse suspicions _ as yet unresolved _ that he and other senior police officials in Karbala were involved in planning and executing the attack.

UNEXPLAINED ABSENCES

Other odd things were happening at the compound, but no one pieced them together until later. All pointed to complicity or collusion on the part of Iraqis who'd spent many days alongside the Americans.

The local barber who had a shop in the compound and who never left before 10 p.m. closed early and vanished. So did the guy who ran a small grocery.

A kid who spoke excellent English and worked as a runner for some of the soldiers, buying cigarettes and sodas and doing other odd jobs, didn't show up.

Another U.S. soldier said that an Iraqi she saw every morning told her he wouldn't be there Jan. 20. The man left at 10 a.m. and didn't return. "He said that he was not going to come back again."

An Iraqi carpenter and his teenage son were always around till 10 p.m., working in a second-floor room. On Jan. 20, they, too, failed to show.

The back courtyard usually was filled with lingering Iraqi police officers. However, as evening grew close, the courtyard was deserted. Only two Iraqi police officers remained on guard, and they're thought to be responsible for unlocking a back gate about 10 minutes before the attack, then they, too, melted away. U.S. soldiers noticed that two police guard towers over adjacent streets had been deserted.

At 5:15 p.m., one of the soldiers from the Fort Richardson regiment walked into Freeman and Fritz's room and borrowed a DVD of "Miami Vice."

"Both Captain Freeman and Lieutenant Fritz were in the office working on their computers," he said. That was the last sighting of either man in Karbala.

Behind their walls, U.S. forces had thought that the worst danger they faced was from something fired from afar.

"Our biggest concern was the threat of mortars," one soldier told investigators. "We expected the IPs (Iraqi police) to do their jobs."

SHOT IN THE BACK

Around 5:45 p.m., the police commander of Checkpoint 52, on a highway leading to Karbala, reported by radio that eight black Chevrolets had just sped through his post without stopping. As the SUVs raced through, the occupants pointed their weapons out the windows.

Within 15 minutes, seven to nine SUVs reached the outer checkpoint to the compound, Gate B1. The Iraqi police guards later said that they'd assumed the occupants were American soldiers, except for Iraqi "translators" who demanded that they turn over their weapons. The police surrendered without firing a shot or calling in a warning.

One of the vehicles stayed behind to guard the gate, and a second secured another entryway. The remaining vehicles moved on to the parking lot.

Five men stepped from the first vehicle, a tan Suburban, as if they belonged there. Spc. Johnathan Chism and Pfc. Shawn Falter, two Fort Richardson soldiers, were standing watch in a Humvee at the entrance to the joint coordination center. The five Iraqis greeted them and headed toward the door.

Falter, apparently suspicious, got out of the Humvee just as three more men left the second Suburban. The three men nodded to Falter and Chism, according to an Iraqi policeman who watched from afar. Just as Falter turned, the last man in the group pulled a pistol and fired.

Falter was shot in the back and fell to the ground, the policeman said. A second attacker jumped on the bumper and shot Chism.

The gunshots appeared to have been the trigger for the assault. "All hell broke loose," the policeman said.

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ABOUT THIS STORY

Two days after the Jan. 20 attack at Karbala, the U.S. Army chief of staff in Iraq ordered a full-scale investigation into what had happened. Over the next several weeks, the investigating officer conducted dozens of interviews with U.S. and Iraqi soldiers and Iraqi police officers. He also was provided with dozens more transcribed interviews of Iraqis taken during a parallel investigation by an Iraqi police official in Baghdad.

McClatchy Newspapers learned of the investigation Feb. 5 when reporter Richard Mauer was embedded at the Iraq headquarters base of the 4th Brigade Combat Team (Airborne) of the 25th Infantry Division.

Though the report was completed Feb. 27, the Army didn't release it until late June under the Freedom of Information Act. Most names were redacted, including its author, and some sensitive information about U.S. forces and strategies was deleted from the public version.

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