FALLUJAH, Iraq — In a scene reminiscent of Somalia, frenzied crowds dragged the burned, mutilated bodies of four American contractors through the streets of a town west of Baghdad on Wednesday and strung two of them up from a bridge after rebels ambushed their sport utility vehicles.
Five U.S. soldiers of the 1st Infantry Division also were killed when a bomb exploded under their M-113 armored personnel carrier north of Fallujah, making it the bloodiest day for Americans in Iraq since Jan. 8.
The four contract workers were killed in Fallujah, a Sunni Triangle city about 35 miles west of Baghdad and scene of some of the worst violence on both sides of the conflict since the beginning of the American occupation a year ago.
Chanting “Fallujah is the graveyard of Americans,” residents cheered after the grisly assault on two four-wheel-drive civilian vehicles left both SUVs in flames.
Residents in Fallujah said insurgents attacked the contractors with small-arms fire and rocket-propelled grenades.
After the attack, a crowd of civilians, none of whom appeared to be armed, gathered to celebrate, dragging the bodies through the street and hanging two of them from the bridge. Many of those in the crowd were young boys who shouted slogans in front of television cameras.
Associated Press Television News pictures showed one man beating a charred corpse with a metal pole. Others tied a yellow rope to a body, hooked it to a car and dragged it down the main street of town. Two blackened and mangled corpses were hung from the green, iron bridge spanning the Euphrates River.
“The people of Fallujah hung some of the bodies on the old bridge like slaughtered sheep,” resident Abdul Aziz Mohammed said.
Some corpses were dismembered, he said.
Who is to blame?
The White House blamed terrorists and remnants of Saddam Hussein’s former regime for the “horrific attacks” on the American contractors.
“It is offensive, it is despicable the way these individuals have been treated,” White House press secretary Scott McClellan said.
Referring to the planned June 30 transfer of sovereignty to Iraqis, McClellan said “the best way to honor those that lost their lives” is to continue with efforts to bring democracy to Iraq.
State Department spokesman Adam Ereli said the contractors, all men, “were trying to make a difference and to help others.”
U.S. officials did not identify the dead or the nature of their work because the next of kin had not yet been notified.
However, early evidence indicated that they worked for Blackwater Security Consulting, a company based in Moyock, N.C., the company said in a statement. The security firm hires former military members from the United States and other countries to provide security training and guard services.
In Iraq, the company was hired by the Pentagon to provide security for convoys that delivered food in the Fallujah area, the company statement said.
Too graphic for American television
The abuse and mutilation of the contractors’ corpses was similar to the scene more than a decade ago in Somalia, when a mob dragged corpses of U.S. soldiers through the streets of Mogadishu, eventually leading to the American withdrawal from the African nation. The images were broadcast worldwide and became the subject of the book and movie “Black Hawk Down.”
But Wednesday’s images of the four civilians killed in Iraq filled television screens worldwide Wednesday but were largely shunned by American television that deemed them too graphic.
In London, Channel 4 News broadcast an electronically blurred body being dragged through the street. In Paris, LCI television station showed the footage of the bodies without blurring them. In Germany, ZDF News showed riot scenes but not any bodies.
On Wednesday, a man held a printed sign with a skull and crossbones and the phrase “Fallujah is the cemetery for Americans” beneath the blackened corpses after they were pulled from the vehicles.
One body was tied to a car that had a poster in its window of Sheik Ahmed Yassin, the founder of the Palestinian militant group Hamas who was assassinated by the Israeli military in Gaza City.
One resident displayed what appeared to be dog tags taken from one body. Residents also said there were weapons in the targeted cars. APTN showed an American passport near a body and a U.S. Department of Defense identification card belonging to another man.
Some of the slain contractors were wearing flak jackets, resident Safa Mohammedi said.
In Baghdad, Brig. Gen. Mark Kimmitt said the coalition would not be deterred from its mission to rebuild Iraq and that numerous reconstruction projects were moving forward nationwide, even though attention was focused on the attacks.
One of the worst months
The roadside bomb that killed the five American soldiers Wednesday was in Malahma, 12 miles northwest of Fallujah, where anti-U.S. insurgents are active.
Their deaths raised the number of U.S. troops killed in March to at least 48, making it the second-deadliest month for U.S. troops since President Bush declared an end to major combat May 1. The deadliest month was November, when 82 U.S. troops were killed.
In all, at least 597 U.S. troops have died in Iraq since the war began March 20, 2003. Of the total, 459 have died since May 1, when Bush flew onto an aircraft carrier off the California coast to declare the end of major combat.
Kimmitt said that over the past week there has been an average of 28 attacks daily against coalition military, compared with an average of just under 20 daily attacks in previous weeks.
In the deadliest previous incident this year, nine soldiers were killed Jan. 8 when their Black Hawk medevac helicopter crashed near Fallujah, apparently after being shot down.
Fallujah is in the so-called Sunni Triangle, where support for Saddam was strong and rebels often carry out attacks against American forces. U.S. Marines recently took over authority in the region from the departing U.S. Army’s 82nd Airborne Division.
In an effort to forcefully establish their presence, the newly arrived Marines have conducted numerous patrols in Fallujah and have engaged in fierce firefights with rebels. In recent months U.S. soldiers were not seen as often in the center of town.
The Marines have said they will aggressively pursue guerrillas in Fallujah. However, no U.S. troops or Iraqi police were seen in the area after the attacks Wednesday, and the city was quiet.