A 122-mm rocket slammed into a mess tent yesterday at a military base where Fort Lewis soldiers are stationed near the northern city of Mosul, ripping through the top and spraying...
BAGHDAD, Iraq — A 122-mm rocket slammed into a mess tent yesterday at a military base where Fort Lewis soldiers are stationed near the northern city of Mosul, ripping through the top and spraying shrapnel as U.S. soldiers sat down to lunch. Officials said 22 people were killed in the deadliest single attack against Americans in Iraq since the start of the war.
The dead included 20 Americans — 15 service members and five civilian contractors. Two Iraqi soldiers also were killed. Sixty-six people were wounded, including 42 U.S. troops, Capt. Brian Lucas, a military spokesman in Baghdad, said early today.
Military officials said the cause of the blast was under investigation, and some security experts said the extent of injuries indicated that it was possible a bomb had been planted inside the hall.
Pentagon officials who spoke on condition of anonymity, said insurgents had fired a rocket into the tent.
Halliburton, a Houston-based company whose subsidiary Kellogg Brown & Root supplies food service and other support for U.S. troops in Mosul, said seven of its workers were killed.
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.
Inside the tent, larger than a football field, were several hundred soldiers at lunch. Survivors 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 (Va.) Times-Dispatch embedded with the troops in Mosul.
“Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters outside,” Redmon wrote. “Others wobbled around the tent and collapsed, dazed by the blast.”
A radical Sunni Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility for the attack — the latest in a week of deadly strikes across Iraq that highlighted the power of the insurgents in the run-up to the Jan. 30 national elections.
The attack came a day after President Bush painted a sobering picture of the situation in Iraq, saying at a Washington news conference that insurgent attacks were eroding the morale of Iraqis and Americans and that efforts to train Iraqi troops have had “mixed” results.
Yesterday, the president visited wounded troops at Walter Reed Army Medical Center in Washington and expressed condolences to relatives of service members killed in Mosul.
Portland (Maine) Press Herald photographer Gregory Rec, who was sleeping about a quarter-mile from the mess hall when he was awakened by the loud 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.”
Redmon said the dead included two soldiers from the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion, which had just sat down to eat.
The force knocked soldiers off their feet and out of their seats as a fireball enveloped the top of the tent and shrapnel sprayed into the area, Redmon said.
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“I can’t hear! I can’t hear!” one soldier cried as a friend hugged her.
A huge hole was blown in the roof of the tent, and puddles of blood, lunch trays and overturned tables and chairs covered the floor, Redmon reported.
Near the front entrance, troops tended a soldier with a head wound, but within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag, he said. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.
“It was very hard to watch and very chaotic but at the same time what amazed me was that within 20 minutes the worst of the wounded, the ones who needed the most attention, were out of there. It was just a remarkable effort by all the soldiers involved. From what I could see they performed flawlessly,” Redmon said.
Like most mess halls at U.S. bases in Iraq, the dining area at Base Marez is covered with a tent. Insurgents have fired mortars at the mess hall more than 30 times this year, Redmon said.
Mortar attacks on U.S. bases, particularly on dining halls, have been frequent in Iraq for more than a year. Last month, for example, a mortar attack on a Mosul base killed two troops with Task Force Olympia.
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 Nemitz said was supposed to have been ready for Christmas.
Asked if reports were true that the private contractor hired to build the new dining hall was supposed to have finished it by Thanksgiving, Ham said the target date — which clearly won’t be met — was Christmas. He cited supply disruptions, shortages of Iraqi labor and weather as logistical hurdles.
“This is Iraq,” Ham said. “This is not Pennsylvania, where you can go hire numbers of contractors and get anything done you want.”
“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,” Hastings told CNN. Frequently the mortars launched against U.S. bases miss their targets and land without causing damage or injury.
When mortars do strike buildings on the post, the information is usually kept secret to avoid tipping off attackers about the accuracy of their strikes.
In a statement on an Islamic Web site, Ansar al-Sunnah called the attack a “martyrdom” operation, which usually means a suicide attack. The claim of responsibility could not be verified.
Brig. Gen Ham told the Portland Herald the device was apparently packed with metal pellets the size of BBs, which sprayed in every direction.
If investigators determine that instead of a rocket, a bomb was planted in the tent or suicide attackers infiltrated the base, the incident will raise even more serious questions about the security at American military installations.
The Sunni-led insurgency in Mosul operates on the edge of the post boundaries. One battalion commander’s convoy was struck by a roadside bomb, and there was an ambush just outside the main gate this month.
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.
Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, was relatively peaceful immediately after the fall of Saddam Hussein’s regime last year. But insurgent 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.
Earlier yesterday, hundreds of students demonstrated at the center of Mosul, demanding that U.S. troops cease raids on homes and mosques. Also, Iraqi forces prevented an attack by insurgents trying to seize a police station at the center of the city.
Ansar al-Sunnah, the group that claimed to be behind then attack, 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.
Even before yesterday, Mosul was the scene of the deadliest single 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.
Information from Bill Nemitz, staff columnist for the Portland, Maine, Press-Herald, and Gregory Rec, Press-Herald photographer, was used in this report. Additional information from The Los Angeles Times, The Washington Post and Knight Ridder Newspapers.