- The Washington Times - Thursday, November 13, 2003

NASIRIYAH, Iraq — A suicide bomber blew up a truck packed with explosives at an Italian paramilitary base here yesterday, killing at least 26 persons. The United States struck at the Iraqi insurgency hours later, destroying a warehouse in Baghdad and chasing attackers who were seen firing mortars.

The Nasiriyah attack was the deadliest against an American ally since the occupation began and appeared to send a message neither international organizations nor troops are safe anywhere in Iraq. It came on the same day the chief U.S. administrator of Iraq went to the White House to put forth proposals on transferring more authority to the Iraqis.

Col. Gianfranco Scalas said 18 Italians were killed: 12 Carabinieri paramilitary police, four soldiers, a civilian working at the base and a documentary filmmaker. A spokesman for the U.S.-led coalition said at least eight Iraqis also died. The bomber — whose nationality was unknown — also died.

The blast wounded 79 persons, 20 of them Italian, hospital sources and Italian officials said.

Italians were stunned by their nation’s single worst military loss since World War II and its first in the Iraq campaign. At Rome’s Tomb of the Unknown Soldier, the Italian flag rippled at half-staff, and parliament held a minute of silence.

Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi pledged that Italy’s mission in Iraq would not be derailed. Opposition leaders who opposed the deployment to postwar Iraq called on the government to withdraw the contingent.

Jalal Talabani, the head of Iraq’s Governing Council, called the slain Italians “martyrs of the fight for the freedom of Iraq.”

There were conflicting accounts of the attack, which took place at 10:40 a.m. at a three-story building used by the Carabinieri’s multinational specialist unit in Nasiriyah, 180 miles southeast of Baghdad.

Witnesses said a decoy car ran a roadblock in front of a square where the Italian barracks was located. Guards opened fire, but as the vehicle sped away a fuel tanker approached from the opposite direction, rammed into the gate of the building, and exploded.

Italian Defense Minister Antonio Martino said the truck, followed by an armored car, approached the compound at high speed. Gunmen inside one of the vehicles opened fire at Italian troops guarding the entrance, he said. The guards returned fire, but the vehicle plowed through the gate and exploded, he said.

It was the 13th vehicle bombing in Iraq since Aug. 7, when a car exploded at the Jordanian Embassy in Baghdad, killing at least 19 persons. Yesterday’s blast from an estimated 650 pounds of explosives collapsed all three stories of the building, gouged a 6-foot-deep crater in front of it, and set fire to parked cars. Secondary explosions from stored ammunition shook the area.

The scorched, twisted remains of military jeeps littered the parking lot, and bulldozers cleared rubble. Chunks of concrete and wiring hung from partly destroyed walls.

“This is terrorism, pure and simple,” Col. Scalas said.

The Italian deaths in Iraq reverberated in Japan.

In Tokyo, the reaction to the attacks on the Italian forces was immediate. A planned dispatch of Japanese noncombat forces to Iraq is not possible in current conditions, Japan’s top spokesman said. The killings occurred in the region where Japanese troops were expected to be based.

The intensifying attacks on U.S.-led coalition forces in Iraq are putting Japanese Prime Minister Junichiro Koizumi, one of Washington’s close Asian allies, in a bind just one day ahead of a visit to Tokyo by U.S. Secretary of Defense Donald H. Rumsfeld.

“There should be a situation where our country’s Self-Defense Forces can conduct their activities fully,” Chief Cabinet Secretary Yasuo Fukuda told a news conference. “But to our regret, the situation is not like that.”

After nightfall in Baghdad, forces from the 1st Armored Division attacked a warehouse used by insurgents, setting off explosions that reverberated throughout the capital.

“The facility is a known meeting, planning, storage and rendezvous point for belligerent elements currently conducting attacks on coalition forces and infrastructure,” the Pentagon said.

The mission was part of Operation Iron Hammer, a new “get tough” policy for confronting insurgents.

Also yesterday, troops in Baghdad spotted attackers firing mortars, a statement by the 1st Armored Division said. The attackers fled in a van.

An Apache helicopter gunship discovered the van heading out of the city near the Abu Ghraib suburb and opened fire, disabling the vehicle and killing two of the occupants, the statement said. A search of the area turned up an 82 mm mortar.

Italy has sent about 2,300 troops to help rebuild Iraq. About 340 Carabinieri are based in Nasiriyah, along with 110 Romanians. No Romanians were reported wounded in yesterday’s attack.

In other developments, U.S. troops in Baghdad yesterday accidentally fired on a car carrying Muhammad Bahr al-Uloun, a member of the Iraqi Governing Council, wounding his driver.

Also, an American soldier was killed when a roadside bomb exploded near a patrol by the town of Taji northwest of Baghdad, and another died of wounds suffered in a roadside bombing in Baghdad.

The deaths bring to 153 the number of U.S. soldiers killed in attacks since President Bush declared an end to active combat May 1.

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