An explosion ripped through a mess tent at a military base near Mosul where hundreds of U.S. soldiers had just sat down to lunch today, killing...

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BAGHDAD, Iraq

An explosion ripped through a mess tent at a military base near Mosul where hundreds of U.S. troops had just sat down to lunch today, and officials said more than 20 people were killed and at least 57 were wounded. A military spokesman said 19 of the dead were American soldiers — the deadliest single attack on U.S. troops since the start of the Iraq war.


A radical Muslim group, the Ansar al-Sunnah Army, claimed responsibility.

The dead included U.S. military personnel, U.S. contractors, foreign national contractors and Iraqi army, said Brig. Gen. Carter Ham, commander of Task Force Olympia in Mosul.

President Bush said the attack should not derail Iraqi elections scheduled for next month and he hoped relatives of those killed know that their loved ones died in “a vital mission for peace.”

The attack came the same day that British Prime Minister Tony Blair made a surprise visit to Baghdad and described the ongoing violence in Iraq as a “battle between democracy and terror.”

Lt. Col. Steven Boylan, spokesman for the Coalition Press Information Center, said 19 U.S. troops were killed, along with three other soldiers of unknown nationality.

But Lt. Col. Paul Hastings, spokesman for Task Force Olympia said 24 people died and 57 were wounded.

“The number is very chaotic, we’ve had different numbers,” Hastings said.

Halliburton spokeswoman Wendy Hall said seven of the dead were from its KBR subsidiary or its subcontractors. Halliburton and its subcontractors have lost 62 personnel while performing services under contracts in the Kuwait-Iraq region, she said.

Jeremy Redmon, a reporter for the Richmond, Va., Times-Dispatch embedded with the troops in Mosul said the dead included two soldiers from the Richmond-based 276th Engineer Battalion, which had just sat down to eat at Forward Operating Base Merez. He reported 64 were wounded, and civilians may have been among them, he said.

Officials could not break down the toll of dead or wounded among the groups. Reports also differed as to the cause of the blast at the camp, which is based outside the predominantly Sunni Muslim city about 220 miles north of Baghdad.

The deadliest day for U.S. soldiers in Iraq was March 23, 2003, when 28 Americans were killed in the 24-hour period. The toll includes 11 killed when the 507th Maintenance Company convoy was ambushed in Nasiriyah.

Mosul also 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 two choppers maneuvered to avoid ground fire from insurgents.

The base, also known as the al-Ghizlani military camp, is used by both U.S. troops and the interim Iraqi government’s security forces. It also is used by members of the Stryker Brigade, based at Fort Lewis, Wash., a military official said.

Although officials initially said rockets or mortar rounds struck the camp, Hastings said it was still under investigation.

“We do not know if it was a mortar or a place explosive,” he said, describing it as a “single explosion.”

Bill Nemitz, a columnist with the Portland Press Herald embedded with the Maine National Guard’s 133rd Engineer Battalion, told CNN there was a concrete dining hall under construction that was supposed to be finished by Christmas. He said he heard “a lot of discussion” among the troops about the vulnerability of the tent.

Hastings told CNN that “there is a level of vulnerability when you go in there and you don’t feel like there’s a hard — hard roof over your head, and when there’s mortar attacks and explosions that happen, there is a level of vulnerability.”

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.

Amid the screaming and thick smoke in the tent, soldiers turned their tables upside down, placed the wounded on them and gently carried them into the parking lot, Redmon said.

Scores of troops crammed into concrete bomb shelters, while others wandered around in a daze and collapsed, he said.

“I can’t hear! I can’t hear!” one female 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 serious head wound, but within minutes, they zipped him into a black body bag, he said. Three more bodies were in the parking lot.

“It is indeed a very, very sad day,” Ham said.

Redmon and photographer Dean Hoffmeyer are embedded with the 276th Engineer Battalion, a Richmond, Va., unit that can trace its lineage to the First Virginia Regiment of Volunteers formed in 1652. George Washington and Patrick Henry were two of its early commanders. Henry created the unit’s motto, “Liberty or Death.”

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 in the al-Ghizlani camp.

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

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

Earlier in the day, hundreds of students demonstrated in the center of Mosul, demanding that U.S. troops cease breaking into homes and mosques there.

Also today, Iraqi security forces repelled another attack by insurgents trying to seize a police station there, the U.S. military said.

On Sunday, insurgents detonated two roadside bombs and a car bomb targeting U.S. forces in Mosul in three separate attacks. Other car bombs Sunday killed 67 people in the Shiite holy cites of Najaf and Karbala.

Interim Prime Minister Ayad Allawi warned Monday that insurgents are trying to foment sectarian civil war as well as derail the elections.

During his visit, Blair held talks with Allawi and Iraqi election officials, whom he called “heroes” for doing their work despite attacks. Three members of Iraq’s election commission were dragged from the car and killed this week in Baghdad.

Allawi said his government was committed to holding the elections as scheduled, despite calls for their postponement owing to the violence.

“We have always expected that the violence would increase as we approach the elections,” Allawi said.

It was Blair’s first visit to Baghdad and his third to Iraq since the dictator Saddam Hussein was toppled in April 2003. Blair, a key supporter of the U.S. invasion, visited British troops stationed around the southern Iraqi city of Basra in mid-2003 and in January. Bush had paid a surprise visit to U.S. troops in Baghdad at Thanksgiving in 2003.

In other violence today, a U.S. jet bombed a suspected insurgent target west of Baghdad. Hamdi Al-Alosi, a doctor in a hospital in the city of Hit, said four people were killed and seven injured in the strike. He said the attack damaged several cars and two buildings. A U.S. military spokesman could not confirm the casualties.

Elsewhere, five American soldiers and an Iraqi civilian were wounded when the Humvee they were traveling in was hit by a car bomb near Hawija, 150 miles north of Baghdad, the U.S. military said.

In Baqouba, a city 35 miles northeast of Baghdad, unidentified assailants shot and killed an Iraqi nuclear scientist as he was on his way to work, witnesses said. Taleb Ibrahim al-Daher, a professor at Diyala University, was killed as he drove over a bridge on the Khrisan river. His car swerved and plummeted into the water.

In northern Iraq, insurgents set ablaze a major pipeline used to ship oil to the Turkish port of Ceyhan, a principal export route, an official with the North Oil CO. said. Firefighters were on the scene, 70 miles southwest of Kirkuk.


Associated Press writers John Lumpkin in Washington and Slobodan Lekic in Baghdad contributed to this story.