- The Washington Times - Thursday, December 23, 2004

The suicide bomber who killed 18 Americans in a mess hall near Mosul, Iraq, was wearing an Iraqi army uniform, U.S. officials said yesterday.

The finding, stated by defense sources and Army Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, the commander of Task Force Olympia in Mosul, helps explain how someone was able to penetrate a highly defended forward operating base on Tuesday and detonate the bomb as soldiers and other personnel sat down for lunch in the hangar-size dining hall.

Gen. Ham, interviewed on CNN, also expressed great frustration at the failure of a sufficient number of Iraqis to qualify for the security forces and fight insurgents.

“I do not have enough Iraqi boots on the ground,” said Gen. Ham, who saw Mosul police flee their posts last month when insurgents attacked. “The mixed performance of the Iraqi security forces and the slow development is a great concern, I think, to all of us, and really, that’s got to be the decisive effort.”

Meanwhile yesterday, Marines in Fallujah clashed with insurgents, and F-18 fighter jets and tanks bombarded guerrilla positions as nearly 1,000 residents returned to the devastated city for the first time since U.S. troops drove out most of the militants last month.

At least three Marines were killed in combat in and around Fallujah.

The dining hall blast killed 22 persons — 13 U.S. service members, five American contractors, three Iraqi soldiers and the infiltrator.

A defense source said that as of last night, officials had not identified the bomber.

“The question is whether the bomber was a soldier or a terrorist in a stolen uniform,” the source said. Another official said investigators were scrutinizing rosters of Iraqi workers and soldiers to try to identify the assailant.

Gen. Ham said, “We don’t know exactly how it happened.

“What we think is likely, but certainly not certain, is that an individual in an Iraqi uniform, possibly with a vest-worn explosive device, was inside the facility and detonated the [device], causing this tragedy,” Gen. Ham said.

The one-star general put some of the blame on himself.

“Clearly in this instance, I failed to identify some shortcomings that allowed this to occur,” he said. “That’s why we’re doing this investigation, to find out where was that seam that these murderers were able to exploit.”

At a press conference on Wednesday, Gen. Richard B. Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, voiced strong support for Gen. Ham.

“Any judgment that General Ham is up there and not worried about force protection is ludicrous,” Gen. Myers said. “This is a man that’s … been working the security up there in that region for the Iraqi people for many, many months, at great personal sacrifice to himself and his forces.

“He has led them well. … This was the insurgents that did this. It’s not General Ham that attacked his dining hall. I think he has a very good plan for force protection,” the chairman said.

Gen. Ham stopped short of saying the assailant was a member of the emerging Iraqi security forces.

But at another point in the interview, he said the screening process for Iraqi soldiers “is sound. But clearly, we have now at least one instance where that was likely not satisfactory.”

There is the possibility that the bomber acquired a uniform for the operation. The Web site of the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, the Sunni Muslim terrorist group that took responsibility for the attack, said the bomber was a Mosul man who had worked on the base for four months and was spying on the Americans.

The extremist group yesterday posted a new message: “God enabled one of your martyr brothers to plunge into God’s enemies inside their forts, killing and injuring hundreds. We don’t know how they can be so stupid that until now they have not figured out the type of the strike that hit them.”

Investigators, which include FBI forensics experts, recovered the bomber’s body parts that included the Iraqi uniform, the defense official said.

“It is very difficult to conceive that this would be the act of a lone individual,” Gen. Ham said. “It would seem to me reasonable to assume that this was a mission perhaps some time in the planning, days perhaps … Ansar al-Sunnah has claimed responsibility. I have no reason to doubt that. They are a very vicious terrorist organization.”

A Washington Times reporter who was embedded with troops at Forward Operating Base Marez earlier this year said Iraqis were conspicuous throughout the base as workers and soldiers.

Iraqis handled the cleaning of both American and Iraqi military uniforms, some of which were stolen from the laundry. Diners are not normally searched before they enter the mess hall.

The bombing raised a number of new security challenges for the U.S. command, which has begun a review of how it screens Iraqis for civilian work and the Iraqi security forces, and how non-U.S. personnel move on and off American bases.

Gen. Ham said soldiers sometimes are required to wear helmets and body armor in the mess tent, depending on threat reports. A soldiers in Mosul said that after a mortar round killed a soldier last summer, helmets and flak jackets were mandatory at every meal. It could not be learned whether soldiers were required to wear protective gear on Tuesday.

Pentagon officials said yesterday they are wondering how many more zealots have been recruited by insurgent groups for similar missions and whether it is possible to detect such saboteurs.

A major part of the U.S. strategy to bring democracy to Iraq is to mix Iraqis among Americans to learn how to conduct civil-military relations. One official said it would be virtually impossible to start separating Iraqis and Americans and still expect to fulfill the mission of gradually turning security over to local forces .

The U.S. program to build from scratch an Iraqi security force has met mixed success. Many units refused to fight in the spring, forcing the Pentagon to virtually start all over again.

In November, some Iraqi units fought well in Fallujah. But when insurgents attacked in Mosul, most police fled. They performed “in a very disappointing manner,” Gen. Ham said.

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