KARBALA, Iraq – Chilling details emerged Sunday of gunmen posing as American and Iraqi soldiers in an ambush on U.S. troops in Karbala a day earlier that killed five Americans and wounded three.

On Saturday, a civil affairs team of American soldiers sat with local leaders in Karbala’s provincial headquarters to discuss security for Ashoura, a Shiite commemoration of the massacre of the revered Imam Hussein that began Sunday.

Outside, danger was approaching. A convoy of seven white GMC Suburbans sped toward the building, breezing through checkpoints, with the men wearing American and Iraqi military uniforms and flashing American ID cards, Iraqi officials said. The force stopped at the police directorate in Karbala and took weapons but gave no reason, said police spokesman Capt. Muthana Ahmed in Babel province.

A call was made to the provincial headquarters to inform them an American convoy was on its way, said the governor of Karbala, Akeel al-Khazaali. But the Americans stationed inside the building, which acts as a coordination center for Iraqi officials, Iraqi security forces and U.S. forces, had not been informed, Iraqi officials said.

As the U.S. soldiers and the Iraqis scrambled to figure out if the men were Americans or an illegally armed group, the convoy arrived and the gunmen tried to break in.

The gunmen launched grenades, mortars and small arms fire, according to a U.S. military statement. The U.S. military said Sunday it was still not clear if the gunmen were Sunni or Shiite militia. Abu Abdullah, a commander in Karbala of the Mahdi Army, the militia led by firebrand Shiite cleric Muqtada al-Sadr, on Sunday denied involvement in the attack.

After 15 minutes of fighting, the gunmen fled towards Hilla, the capital of Babel, a mixed Sunni-Shiite province, Ahmed said.

Babel police were notified as the convoy sped toward their capital city, and Iraqi police commandos gave chase. The police commandos discovered the vehicles and found three dead men inside, a wounded man and five others, Ahmed said. He said they all spoke English. Iraqi police took the men back to the police station and American forces retrieved them by dawn.

Also inside the vehicles, Iraqi police found a bag filled with American military uniforms. They also found flak vests, American weapons and American ID cards that had allowed the gunmen to maneuver through the city, Ahmed said.

The U.S. military did not reveal details Sunday, but acknowledged the gunmen posed as American and Iraqi soldiers using U.S. and Iraqi military uniforms, GMC Suburbans and American and Iraqi identification.

Al-Khazaali, the Karbala governor, said Saturday that the Americans had raided the building. On Sunday he told reporters that the incident was under investigation and that he believed the force was an illegally armed group. Al-Khazaali also said the group had kidnapped one or two U.S. soldiers, but U.S. military spokesman Lt. Col. Scott Bleichwehl said that all U.S. soldiers were accounted for.

Khazaali attributed the raid to one of two things – “friendly fire” or attackers using “high and new tactics.”

On Sunday, Ahmed said the last two vehicles were found abandoned on the side of a road, stripped of radios and tires, north of Hilla on the highway between the southern Shiite city and the capital.

Also Sunday, the Mujahadeen Army, an insurgent group active in Baqouba, claimed responsibility for a helicopter crash that killed 12 American soldiers, including four crew members and eight passengers. A statement released Saturday put the number at 13 but was corrected on Sunday. The claim could not be independently verified.

The Sadrist bloc, the largest in the Iraqi parliament, ended their almost two-month boycott of the government on Sunday. The group boycotted the government following a bombing that killed more than 200 people in Sadr City. One of the Sadrist politicians’ top demands was a timetable for a withdrawal of American troops, a handover of security to the Iraqi government and a promise not to agree to more U.S. troops without the consent of the parliament. They returned only after a committee was formed to discuss their demands and present them to the parliament, said Nassar al-Rubaie, head of the Sadrist bloc.

Sadrists were angered by an announced addition of 21,500 American troops in Iraq last week, 17,500 in Baghdad alone to help quell sectarian violence. The first of those troops have already arrived. The 2nd Brigade, 82nd Airborne Division, about 3,200 soldiers, arrived in Iraq last week, the military announced Sunday. They will be deployed in the capital and “fully operational” by Feb. 1. The troop arrival comes after one of the deadliest days for U.S. soldiers since the Iraq war began in 2003. At least 23 U.S. soldiers and Marines were killed across Baghdad on Saturday.

(McClatchy Newspapers special correspondent Qassim Zein contributed to this report. Fadel reported from Baghdad, special correspondent Ali from Karbala.)

(c) 2007, McClatchy-Tribune Information Services.

AP-NY-01-21-07 1834EST

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