- The Washington Times - Thursday, March 11, 2004

HILLA, Iraq — Security forces in this southern Iraqi city say criminals recruited into the city’s police force were responsible for the killing of two American civilians this week, contradicting initial reports that the killers were impostors in police uniforms.

Meanwhile, two U.S. soldiers were killed and another was wounded by a bomb in Habbaniyah, about 45 miles west of Baghdad late yesterday, the military said.

Fern Holland, a 33-year-old human rights expert from Oklahoma, and another American were killed along with their Iraqi translator on Tuesday by men in Iraqi police uniforms, according to witnesses. It was the first time that American civilian employees of the Coalition Provisional Authority have been killed in Iraq.

Authority officials said Wednesday that the three were fatally shot at a phony checkpoint between Hilla and Karbala by men posing as policemen, although by yesterday, officials were backing away from that version of events.

“They were in police uniforms. We haven’t established that it was the police,” Lt. Gen. Ricardo Sanchez, the U.S. commander in Iraq, told reporters yesterday.

“We are very concerned about it,” he said. “We know that this has gone on … that there are some policemen that have done criminal acts in the past.”

Police commanders in Hilla, who arrested five men in uniform near the scene, went much further in interviews with United Press International.

“We were called to the scene, and the men were leaving,” said Police Col. Jauad Khadam. “We caught them on the road back to Karbala. They said they were Iraqi police and had come on the scene to help.”

One of the commander’s men then interrupted: “But we knew they were lying because their guns were hot and had just been fired. So we knew we had them.”

At the Hilla jail, where the men were held until Polish troops took them into custody, the guards insisted that the gunmen were known to them as real policemen.

“We knew some of them,” one man said. “Their commander [in Karbala] had been a criminal before Saddam [Hussein] left, so we knew his gang. They had been in jail here before.

“But then they got jobs as policemen in Karbala — we knew this before this happened. We couldn’t believe that the Americans gave police jobs to criminals like these.”

The U.S.-led coalition has embarked on a crash program to recruit and train 35,000 police officers to serve in Baghdad and other Iraqi cities within the next two years.

Because of the urgency of providing a security presence on the streets, it has been difficult to screen all candidates effectively. This week, the military said U.S. forces captured two members of the Iraqi Civil Defense Corps who were “suspected of conducting anticoalition activities.”

Col. Khadam, who lives near the isolated stretch of highway where the Americans were killed, took issue with the official explanation that the killings took place at a roadblock.

“A pickup truck — an Iraqi police truck — chased the car carrying the three victims,” he said. “They shot the car until it went off the road. Then the men got out of the truck, walked up to the car and made sure they were dead.”

Local drivers at a taxi stand 150 yards from the scene of the killings gave a similar account. They described watching men in a police truck chase the American vehicle, shoot until it swerved off the road, and then get out and fire dozens of rounds into the crashed vehicle.

Each man gave the same version of events until asked for his name, then each denied having seen the shooting and became uncooperative.

“They all saw it happen, but these people are very nervous,” said one traffic policeman. “They know the police who did this murder. We are not far from Karbala, where they work. They think that if they are seen talking to you, they will be killed.”

Tire tracks at the scene of the shooting clearly showed that a car had hit its brakes, skidded across a median strip and through the oncoming lane of traffic before going off the road and skidding about 50 yards and then slamming into a low wall of earth.

Other tire tracks showed that a second vehicle had followed the first car from the same direction. It had driven — not skidded — across the median and parked near the first vehicle.

Shell casings littered the road just before where the skid marks began, most of them from AK-47 assault rifles, which are ubiquitous in Iraq. More casings lay near where the cars came to rest.

There also was one casing from a 9 mm handgun, which are extremely uncommon in Iraq. Handguns of any kind are rare in Iraq, and those who do carry pistols usually have cheap Soviet-era weapons that use smaller rounds.

In the past three months, the majority of Iraqi police — including those in Karbala and Hilla — have been issued 9 mm pistols by the American occupation forces. Although it cannot be determined when the round was fired, a Hilla police officer identified it as police issue.

“Only real police would have this round,” he said.

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