V CORPS HEADQUARTERS, in Northern Kuwait — It began as a nighttime convoy by an Army maintenance unit near the Euphrates River. It ended in a wrong turn at a bridge that led to death for some American soldiers, the capture of others and an embarrassment to the American military in the early days of the war against Iraq.
"It's a sad day," said an Army colonel in the tactical operations center of the Army's V Corps. "Say a prayer for the soldiers lost."
The Army withheld names of the soldiers listed as missing and some details of the incident near the town of An Nasiriyah in southeastern Iraq, an important crossing point over the Euphrates northwest of Basra.
Late Sunday night, an Army officer said seven soldiers had been killed but their bodies not recovered, five had been taken prisoner, four were wounded but made it back to American lines, six others had returned unhurt and three were missing. Another officer said the number of dead and missing may change.
The names of the soldiers involved were not disclosed by the American authorities, pending notification of their families. But Pentagon officials said the American unit was from the 507th Maintenance Co., attached to the Third Infantry Division, and at least some, if not all, of the dead and captured Americans shown on the Arab television network al-Jazeera on Sunday were from the skirmish involving the maintenance unit.
According to Army officers still piecing together the incident, soldiers of a lightly armed maintenance unit were traveling on Highway One, a main north-south artery, in a convoy of 15 vehicles Sunday near An Nasiriyah.
At a certain point the convoy took a wrong turn, mistakenly leaving Highway One. As the convoy moved toward the first of several bridges into town, the Americans realized their mistake, officials believe.
The Americans made a hasty U-turn, but the road behind them was blocked by two buses, and the convoy came under attack from two Iraqi T-55 tanks and a company-sized unit of foot soldiers believed to be fedayeen irregulars, not Iraqi Army troops.
In the clash that followed, the first two cars of the convoy — a Humvee and a recovery vehicle — were separated from the other 13 vehicles.
An Army captain in the Humvee — the commander of the convoy — drove the vehicle through the gunfire, and some of those aboard were wounded. According to one account, the officer drove nearly four miles before being forced to stop because his front tires had been shot out.
A unit of American Marines on patrol saw the disabled vehicle and called in a medevac helicopter, which evacuated the officer and his soldiers. Some of the soldiers were seriously wounded.
The Marines resumed their patrol and within minutes came upon four more American vehicles, two riddled with bullets and two on fire. No Americans were in sight. As a result, the Army listed the occupants of those vehicles as missing in action. The fate of the other vehicles and their occupants was unclear.
At least some of the captured Americans were shown on a broadcast by the Arab TV network al-Jazeera, in which an off-camera Iraqi interviewer, holding an Iraqi TV microphone, asked each soldier's name and hometown. The soldiers looked shaken and nervous. They appeared to be indoors in a sparsely furnished room.
One female soldier said she was from Texas and that she was 30 years old. She had a bandage around her left ankle. Asked what unit she came from, she replied, "507th Maintenance."
Another soldier said he was from Kansas. Asked why he had come to Iraq, he said: "Because I was told to come."
The next American interviewed gave his name as Joseph and said he came from El Paso, Texas. A New Mexico woman, Anecita Hudson, of Alamogordo, N.M., told The Associated Press that she saw her 23-year-old son, Army Spc. Joseph Hudson, in the video, which was carried by a Filipino television station to which she subscribes.
"From my point of view, he looked so scared," she said. Another American gave his name as Edgar and also said he was from Texas; the fifth captive said he was from New Jersey.
Al-Jazeera's footage of the dead included images of at least four bodies. It was unclear whether any of the American dead shown on the tapes had been executed. People who saw the tape of the five wounded soldiers being interviewed and the tape of the soldiers who had been killed said that some of the dead in one tape resembled some of the wounded in the other, and some of the dead soldiers appeared to have bullet wounds to the head. The announcer apologized at one point for the gruesome images.