- The Washington Times - Wednesday, December 22, 2004

BAGHDAD — A 122 mm rocket slammed into a mess tent yesterday at a military base near the northern city of Mosul, ripping through the ceiling and spraying shrapnel as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch. Officials said 22 persons were killed in one of the most devastating attacks against Americans in Iraq since the start of the war.

The dead included 20 Americans — 15 of them service members and five civilian contractors. Two Iraqi soldiers also were killed. Sixty-six persons were wounded, including 42 U.S. troops, Capt. Brian Lucas, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said early this morning.

Two of the dead soldiers were from the 276th Engineer Battalion in the Richmond area.

A radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack, which left the tent floor littered with lunch trays and puddles of blood — the latest in a week of deadly strikes across Iraq.

President Bush said the attack should not derail the January elections and hoped relatives of those killed knew that their loved ones died in “a vital mission for peace.”

“I’m confident democracy will prevail in Iraq,” he said.

Inside the tent, U.S. soldiers reacted quickly. With people screaming and thick smoke billowing, soldiers turned their lunch tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot, said Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Richmond Times-Dispatch embedded with the troops in Mosul.

A U.S. military official said authorities think the damage was caused by at least one large-caliber artillery round or rocket. Another official said it was possible the explosive had been planted.

Portland (Maine) Press Herald photographer Gregory Rec, who was sleeping about a quarter-mile from the mess hall when he was awakened by the explosion, said he rushed to the scene, where a soldier told him “he heard a whoosh, he looked up and saw a fireball halfway between the ceiling and the floor.”

The blast at Forward Operating Base Marez came hours after British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad and spoke of a “battle between democracy and terror.”

Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, was relatively peaceful in the immediate aftermath of the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime last year. But rebel attacks in the largely Sunni area have increased dramatically in the past year — particularly since the U.S.-led military offensive in November to retake Fallujah from militants.

Like most mess halls at U.S. bases in Iraq, the meal area at Base Marez is covered with a tent. Rebels have fired mortars at the mess hall more than 30 times this year, Mr. Redmon said.

Mortar attacks on U.S. bases, particularly on the huge white tents that serve as dining halls, have been frequent in Iraq for more than a year. Just last month, a mortar attack on a Mosul base killed two soldiers with Task Force Olympia, the reinforced brigade responsible for security in much of northern Iraq.

Bill Nemitz, a columnist with the Portland Press Herald who was embedded with the troops in Mosul, told CNN that he heard “a lot of discussion” about the vulnerability of the tent.

Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, a spokesman for Task Force Olympia, acknowledged the tent’s vulnerability and told CNN the military is building a new dining facility at the base — a concrete structure that Mr. Nemitz said was supposed to have been ready for Christmas.

“There is a level of vulnerability when you go in there and you don’t feel like there’s a … hard roof over your head,” Col. Hastings told CNN.

Base Marez, also known as the al-Ghizlani military camp, is three miles south of Mosul and is used by both U.S. troops and the interim Iraqi government’s security forces.

It once was Mosul’s civilian airport but is now a heavily fortified area surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire. Its two main gates are guarded by U.S. troops; Iraqi national guard members man checkpoints outside to prevent cars from getting close without being searched.

Casualty reports fluctuated throughout the day, with military officials and others giving conflicting figures.

Halliburton Co., a Houston-based company whose subsidiary KBR, formerly Kellogg Brown & Root, supplies food service and other support activities for U.S. troops in Mosul, said seven of its employees and subcontractors were killed in the blast. Their nationalities were not disclosed.

Earlier, Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia, said U.S. military personnel, American and foreign nationals and Iraqi soldiers were among the dead. “It is indeed a very, very sad day,” Gen. Ham said.

In addition to the two soldiers in the Richmond unit, two soldiers from the Maine National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion were killed and 12 were wounded, the Portland Press Herald reported.

Mr. Redmon and photographer Dean Hoffmeyer are embedded with the 276th Engineer Battalion, a Richmond National Guard unit that can trace its lineage to the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteers formed in 1652.

The base is also used by members of the Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., a military official said.

The Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for the attack in a statement on the Internet. It said the attack was a “martyrdom operation” targeting a mess hall.

Ansar al-Sunnah is believed to be a fundamentalist group that wants to turn Iraq into an Islamic state like Afghanistan’s former Taliban regime. The Sunni group claimed responsibility for beheading 12 Nepalese hostages and other recent attacks in Mosul.

Mosul was also the scene of the deadliest previous incident for U.S. troops in Iraq. On Nov. 15, 2003, two Black Hawk helicopters collided over the city, killing 17 soldiers and injuring five. The crash occurred as the choppers maneuvered to avoid ground fire.

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