Thursday, December 23, 2004

BAGHDAD — The U.S. military said yesterday that a suicide bomber likely carried out the attack on a U.S. base near Mosul, Iraq, spraying a crowded mess tent with small pellets and killing 22 persons — most of them Americans.

“We have had a suicide bomber apparently strap something to his body … and go into a dining hall,” Gen. Richard B. Myers, the chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff, told reporters at the Pentagon. “We know how difficult this is to prevent people bent on suicide and stopping them.”

The announcement raised questions about how the attacker infiltrated the base, which is surrounded by blast walls and barbed wire and guarded by U.S. troops. However, as in many other U.S. military facilities, Iraqis do a variety of jobs at the base, including cleaning, cooking, construction and office duties.

The apparent sophistication of Tuesday’s operation — the deadliest single attack on U.S. troops since the war began — indicated that the attacker had inside knowledge of the base’s layout and the soldiers’ schedule. The blast occurred at lunchtime.

There was little apparent sympathy for the dead Americans on Mosul’s deserted streets, where hundreds of U.S. troops, backed up by armored vehicles and helicopters, blocked bridges and cordoned off Sunni Muslim areas of Iraq’s third-largest city.

“I wish that 2,000 U.S. soldiers were killed,” said Jamal Mahmoud, a trade union official.

Initial reports said a rocket had ripped into the tent. Later, however, a radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, took responsibility, saying it was a “martyrdom operation” — generally a reference to a suicide bombing.

Military officials in Iraq said yesterday that shrapnel from the explosion included small ball bearings, which often are used in suicide bombings but are not usually part of shrapnel from rockets or mortars.

The attack sparked renewed concerns about the ability of U.S. troops and their Iraqi allies to secure elections on Jan. 30. The military said they had expected an increase in violence as insurgents attempt to derail the vote for an assembly that will draft Iraq’s new constitution.

“Insurgents, who have everything to lose, are desperate to create the perception that elections are not possible,” said Gen. George W. Casey, the commander of multinational forces in Iraq. “We will not allow terrorist violence to stop progress toward elections.”

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 troops with Task Force Olympia, the main force responsible for security in northern Iraq.

Tuesday’s blast wrecked the mess tent at Forward Operating Base Marez, a military camp for U.S. and Iraqi government forces just south of Mosul.

The 22 dead were 13 U.S. service members, five U.S. civilians, three Iraqi national guard members and one “unidentified non-U.S. person,” the U.S. military command in Baghdad said yesterday.

Gen. Myers said authorities don’t know whether the unidentified person was the likely bomber.

Of the 69 wounded, 44 are members of the U.S. military, seven are U.S. contractors, five are civilian workers for the Defense Department, two are Iraqi civilians, 10 are contractors of other nationalities and one is of unknown nationality and occupation, the statement said.

About 50 people — most of them injured soldiers from Mosul — arrived in Germany yesterday aboard an Air Force C-141 transport plane. As a light snow fell, some of the wounded were carried away on stretchers.

Halliburton Co. lost four American employees in the attack, the Houston-based contractor said. Sixteen other Halliburton workers, including 12 subcontractors, were injured seriously.

In the immediate aftermath of Saddam Hussein’s ouster in April 2003, U.S. commanders cited Mosul — with a population of 1.2 million about 220 miles north of Baghdad — as a success story. But armed opposition has mounted, especially since last month’s successful U.S.-led operation to retake the insurgent-held town of Fallujah.

Yesterday, hundreds of U.S. troops blocked five bridges over the Tigris River, and patrols spread out through the mainly Sunni neighborhoods of Muthanna, Wahda and Hadabaa.

Although no curfew was proclaimed, city streets were virtually deserted as personnel carriers and armored Humvees rumbled through.

Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, spokesman for Task Force Olympia, said the operation had been planned before Tuesday’s attack. He said five of the bridges were closed to civilian traffic.

“We are targeting certain objectives, geographical as well as intelligence information about the terrorists,” he said. “We are going to take the fight to the enemy.”

Some residents watching the U.S. troops said they were worried about repercussions from the base attack.

Sadiq Mohammed, a grocer, expressed concern that the U.S. military would use the attack as a pretext for a major crackdown in the city.

“Yesterday’s attack on the American base will for sure lead to an escalation in U.S. military activities in Mosul,” he said.

Izdihar Kamel, a civil servant, praised those who had carried out the attack.

“It was a heroic operation,” Mr. Kamel said. “This is jihad, and he who carried out this attack is a hero.”

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