The explosion that killed 22 people in a U.S. military mess hall in northern Iraq apparently was an inside job by a suicide bomber who managed to elude multiple layers of security...

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WASHINGTON — The explosion that killed 22 people in a U.S. military mess hall in northern Iraq apparently was an inside job by a suicide bomber who managed to elude multiple layers of security, senior military officials said yesterday.

U.S. military investigators reached the conclusion that the blast in Mosul on Tuesday was caused by a suicide bombing rather than a rocket, as earlier reported, after finding remnants of material that might have served as the bomber’s backpack or vest, as well as widely dispersed body parts that probably belonged to the bomber, a senior military official said.

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It was the deadliest attack on a U.S. military base since the war began in March 2003.

The 3,500 U.S. troops at the base in southwest Mosul, including elements of the 1st Brigade of the Fort Lewis-based 25th Infantry Division and the 276th Engineering Battalion from Richmond, Va., conduct security and support operations in and around Mosul.

The bomber apparently packed ball bearings around a bomb strapped to his body to maximize the amount of shrapnel that tore through the crowd at noon, when the greatest number of soldiers would be present, said the official, who spoke on condition of anonymity.

Military officials described their findings after a press briefing by Defense Secretary Donald Rumsfeld and Air Force Gen. Richard Myers, chairman of the Joint Chiefs of Staff.

Tuesday’s attack occurred amid a rising campaign of intimidation by insurgents before Iraq’s national elections Jan. 30.

Military officials said 14 U.S. troops, four U.S. civilian contractors and three Iraqi National Guard members were killed in the attack, along with one unidentified “non-U.S.” victim, apparently the bomber.

Sixty-nine people were wounded. They included 44 U.S. troops, seven U.S. contractors, five U.S. civilians working for the Defense Department, two Iraqi civilians and 10 contractors of other nationalities. The nationality and occupation of one could not be determined.

Dozens of victims arrived yesterday at Ramstein Air Base in Germany. About 25 returned to duty, defense officials said.

Since the start of the war in March 2003, at least 1,321 members of the U.S. military have died in Iraq.

The investigation is continuing but the finding that a suicide bomber was responsible for the attack contradicted early reports that a 122-millimeter rocket struck the fabric-covered tent at Forward Operating Base Marez. In a statement on an Islamic Web site, a group calling itself Ansar al-Sunnah Army claimed responsibility for Tuesday’s attack and claimed it was a suicide operation by a 24-year-old man who had worked on the base for two months.

Officials at the base have been concerned about the possibility of an attack since late last month, when a suspect arrested in a roundup in Mosul’s Old Town was found with a document that contained minutes of a cell meeting that described an attack on U.S. forces, according to an ABC News report.

The base has been open to coalition forces, Iraqi National Guard soldiers and Iraqi civilian contractors who work on various projects.

At the entry to the base, security at least through September was handled by mix of U.S. solders and contract workers, according to a soldier from the 3rd Brigade 2nd Infantry Division, which was stationed in Mosul through September.

The contract workers would do most of the hands-on work of checking people who tried to enter the base, according to a Fort Lewis soldier who declined to be identified for fear of reprisals. U.S. soldiers have worked in a support role, overseeing the contracted security workers as they conducted searches, the soldier said.

Though the support role gave U.S. soldiers less of a hands-on role in searches, it also reduced the risk they would be in a direct line of fire if a suicide bomber detonated an explosive at the base entry point.

The searches, at least through September, typically involved pat-downs but did not include the use of bomb-sniffing dogs.

“In hindsight, those dogs would have been great,” the soldier said.

Once inside the base, the movements of Iraqi civilian contractors were typically watched by U.S. soldiers. But Iraqi National Guard soldiers did not undergo the same scrutiny. Both contractors and Iraqi National Guard ate in the same mess hall as U.S. troops, the soldier said.

“The biggest security problem there [at Marez] is that the Iraqi police and [Iraqi] National Guard were not consistently searched coming in and out,” said another Fort Lewis soldier with the Stryker unit that returned in October.

He said “it would be very easy to smuggle things onto that base if you were an Iraqi National Guardsman or an Iraqi policeman. … There was more than enough opportunity for them to bring something on the post.”

He said the Iraqis there were very offended at being searched.

The bombing was especially devastating because it occurred inside a crowded mess tent, an area where soldiers assume they are safe. Troops commonly toss their helmets and protective vests onto chairs and floors at base mess halls across Iraq.

Recent attacks suggest the insurgents have deliberately aimed at dining facilities during mealtimes. In Ramadi on Nov. 27, a rocket harmlessly hit the dirt about 50 yards from the main mess hall.

In the first months after the U.S.-led invasion last year, Mosul, Iraq’s third-largest city, was cited as a model of tranquility in Iraq. However, while a U.S.-led force was attacking rebellious Fallujah last month, a surge of violence wracked Mosul. Nine of the city’s 33 police stations were overrun by insurgents, and many police deserted. Some joined the militants.

Yesterday, residents awakened to find the city of nearly 2 million in virtual lockdown by U.S. forces. Sporadic gunfire rang through deserted streets beginning at 6 a.m. Schools closed. The military shut down the city’s five main bridges, cordoned off Sunni Muslim areas and the local governor warned residents to stay home or risk being shot.

There was little apparent sympathy for the dead Americans on Mosul’s deserted streets.

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

Residents, who have been living with a 5 p.m. curfew since Nov. 11, said they are worried that Tuesday’s deadly strike will prompt U.S. forces to launch a major offensive on the city. “America is preparing its hand to put pressure on Mosul and plant the seeds of war, just as it did with Fallujah,” said one Mosul resident, who said he was too frightened to be identified.

Some senior U.S. officials expressed deep fears that the infiltration is so widespread that it could hobble Iraqi security forces assigned to protect Jan. 30 elections, a key element of the Bush administration’s strategy to stabilize Iraq.

“If they can get a bomb into a mess tent, how do you protect people lined up to vote all over the country?” said a senior U.S. official.

Seattle Times staff reporters Hal Bernton and Jessica Blanchard contributed to this report. Additional information from Knight Ridder Newspapers, The Associated Press and Chicago Tribune.