The murders of Fern Holland, 33, a women's rights advocate, another unidentified American and their Iraqi translator outside the southern Iraqi town of Hilla Tuesday afternoon were committed by men in Iraqi police uniforms, according to witnesses. And local police officials insist they were actually police and not imposters.
The two American victims are the first Coalition Provisional Authority civilians killed in Iraq, CPA officials said.
In more than a dozen separate interviews with police officials and local eyewitnesses -- few of whom would speak on the record but told a basically similar version of what happened Tuesday -- a story has emerged that is very different from the one reported Wednesday. The version told to UPI Thursday is also supported by physical evidence at the crime scene.
Coalition officials told reporters Wednesday that the car carrying the three victims had been stopped by a phony checkpoint on the road between the Iraqi towns of Hilla and Karbala, about 90 minutes south of Baghdad. After stopping the vehicle, imposter police opened fire on the car, killing the three, according to that account.
Lt. General Ricardo Sanchez - the American commander of coalition military forces in Iraq -- and the Polish defense minister told reporters Wednesday that they believed imposter police set up a phony roadblock.
But Iraqi Police commanders in Hilla -- who investigated the scene and arrested five men in uniform -- insist that a very different sequence of events took place.
"We were called to the scene, and the men were leaving," he said. "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 jailers insisted that the men were actual Iraqi policemen and not impersonators.
"We knew some of them," one man said. "Their commander (in Karbala) had been a criminal before Saddam 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."
Iraqi Police Col. Jauad Khadam -- who also lives near the isolated stretch of highway where the killing took place -- described a very different scene from the phony checkpoint story first told to reporters.
"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."
An examination of the crime scene and interviews with local witnesses supports this version of events. At a local taxi stand just 150 meters from the scene of the killings -- which happened in late afternoon or early evening -- local drivers described watching the police truck chase the American vehicle, shoot until it swerved off the road, and the men get out and pumped dozens of rounds into the crashed vehicle.
Each man told the same version of events until asked for his name. Then he denied having seen the event and became uncooperative. This was repeated four times until UPI was encouraged to leave the taxi stand.
"They all saw it happen, but these people are very nervous," said one traffic police officer who hitched a ride out of the area with UPI. "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."
At the scene of the attack, one police officer -- who also would not be named -- showed UPI what he said happened. Tire tracks clearly showed how one car hit its brakes, skidded across a median strip and through the oncoming lane of traffic, went off the road and skidded about 50 meters more until slamming into a low wall of earth.
Other tire tracks clearly show that a second vehicle followed the first car from the same direction. It drove - and did not skid -- across the median and parked very near the first vehicle.
Many shell casings littered the road just before the skid marks began, most from AK-47 assault rifles, which are ubiquitous in Iraq. More casings lay near where the cars came to rest.
But one casing was a 9mm handgun round, which are extremely uncommon in Iraq. Handguns of any kind are rare in Iraq, and those who do carry pistols usually have a cheap Soviet-era pistol that fires a smaller round.
In the past three months, the majority of Iraqi Police -- including those in Karbala and Hilla -- have been issued 9mm pistols by the American occupation forces. While it cannot be determined when the round itself was fired, the Hilla police officer identified it as police issue.
"Only real police would have this round," he said.