BAGHDAD, Iraq—In perhaps the grisliest attack on Americans since Baghdad fell nearly a year ago, residents of the unruly town of Fallujah burned and mutilated the corpses of four American civilians who were killed in an ambush by insurgents Wednesday.
The attack came hours after five U.S. soldiers were killed northwest of the town when their armored personnel carrier ran over a bomb, the largest American military death toll in a single incident since January.
Images captured by Arab camera crews in Fallujah but deemed too lurid to broadcast showed shrieking young men and boys kicking a charred corpse and holding dog tags near one body. Although the person appeared dead, the blows made the corpse quiver as though alive. Another charred corpse hung from a bridge, as if lynched, while grinning boys posed beside it.
Townspeople hacked at the dead with sticks, then—as seen on an al Arabiya television broadcast—tethered one body to a car and dragged it through the town 35 miles west of Baghdad. Al Arabiya electronically blurred the body in its broadcast.
U.S. officials wouldn't identify the four civilians or say what they were doing on the coalition's behalf, but a North Carolina security firm said they worked for it, providing security for food shipments in the Fallujah area.
Blackwater Security didn't identify the dead. Its Web site says its employees are former special operations troops or intelligence operatives. The company also provides security guards for U.S. Iraq administrator L. Paul Bremer.
American commanders resisted comparisons of the Fallujah incident to the 1993 scene in Somalia in which a mob dragged a U.S. soldier's corpse through the streets of Mogadishu, a stomach-turning episode that led to the American withdrawal there.
"Sometimes false comparisons are not helpful," said U.S. Army Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt, the deputy commander of operations and the chief military spokesman in Baghdad.
In Washington, the White House said it mourned the deaths but "we will not turn back" from efforts to democratize Iraq. "These are horrific attacks by people who are trying to prevent democracy from moving forward, but democracy is taking root," spokesman Scott McClellan said.
Kimmitt called Wednesday's killings tragic. But he and senior coalition spokesman Dan Senor characterized them as an aberration amid wider Iraqi cooperation with the U.S.-led coalition and polls that suggest Iraqis want the Americans here to make the country safer.
Still, Wednesday's death toll made it clear that American troops and those working with them aren't safe. U.S. military statistics show that March was the second deadliest month for Americans since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1. As of Wednesday, 599 American service members had been killed in Iraq.
Wednesday's carnage began when five 1st Infantry Division soldiers were killed as their M-113 armored personnel carrier ran over a bomb in a farming area near Habaniyah, northwest of Fallujah. Details were scant, but the soldiers were said to be driving along a known supply route.
A few hours later, the American civilians drove through Fallujah, their four-wheel-drive vehicles unescorted by Iraqis or coalition forces. The vehicles were struck by gunfire and a rocket-propelled grenade.
Townspeople pulled burning bodies from the vehicles, and the macabre abuse ensued.
Coalition forces sealed off the area and began trying to arrange with townspeople to recover the remains. An investigation into the incident started.
A day earlier, Kimmitt had given an upbeat assessment of Fallujah and surrounding Anbar province, where Marines took over from the 82nd Airborne Division two weeks ago. Seven Marines were killed in their first 10 days in charge.
"The Marines are quite pleased with how things are going in Fallujah, and they're looking forward to continuing the progress in establishing a safe and secure environment and rebuilding that province in Iraq," the general had said.
By Wednesday, he said, "Fallujah is one of those cities in Iraq that just doesn't get it."
U.S. commanders have characterized predominantly Sunni Muslim Anbar province, which includes the town of Ramadi, as a dangerous brew of al-Qaida-inspired foreign fighters and Iraqis loyal to Saddam Hussein's Baath Party regime who've yet to reap the rewards of the U.S.-led occupation.
Amid the mayhem Wednesday, townspeople offered two chants that suggest both sympathies, according to news reports. Some cheered, "Fallujah is the graveyard of the Americans," which could reflect homegrown resistance.
Others shouted, "We sacrifice our blood and our souls for Islam," a typical Arabic rallying cry that could suggest wider Islamic inspiration in an area where Sunnis under Saddam blended a rural-village form of traditionalism with the Baath Party's secular ideology.
Fallujah residents interviewed recently described a cycle of resentment and revenge at Americans over military raids and convoys. A rural, hardscrabble region that was home to farmers and the families of Iraqi army and police officers, it suffered least under Saddam's regime and has benefited least from U.S. reconstruction efforts, in part because of the resistance and in part because the American decision to remove Baath Party members from their jobs left few people in place to assist with rebuilding.
The Marines have $540 million to spend on reconstruction projects, which they hope to do alongside military operations in an effort to improve relations with residents.
Senor said those who defiled the contractors' corpses "aren't people we are interested in helping. Those are people we have to capture or kill, so this country can move forward."
He accused the killers of wanting to return Iraq to an era of mass graves and chemical attacks.
Kimmitt acknowledged that Wednesday's violence was part of an "uptick in localized engagement" across Iraq, noting several episodes in the so-called Sunni Triangle outside Baghdad.
A U.S. soldier was killed in a roadside bombing Tuesday and a suicide bomber detonated his car Wednesday near a convoy of government vehicles in Baqouba, killing himself and wounding 14 Iraqis but missing the presumed target, Diyala provincial Gov. Abdullah al Joubori.
(Rosenberg reports for The Miami Herald.)
U.S. military deaths in Iraq, by month
These figures were compiled from Central Command news releases by lunaville.org, a private Web site that keeps a running total of U.S. dead and wounded in Iraq.
(c) 2004, Knight Ridder/Tribune Information Services.